KERRYN PHELPS: Deliberate COVID infections present extreme dangers

I have a message for the people I am hearing lately who say they just want to catch COVID-19 to “get it over and done with”.

Some people are going as far as having “community immunity parties” like the chickenpox parties of the 1970s before a vaccine was developed. Back in the day, most children had mild chickenpox infections, but some suffered complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis and many went on to develop excruciating outbreaks of shingles in adulthood.

Trying to get COVID-19 “over and done with” is a Very. Bad. Idea. And here is why.

Firstly, don’t believe the line that Omicron is “mild”. Both Omicron and Delta variants are circulating currently and while you might be lucky to get a “mild” case, you might be one of the people who gets severe disease. We also know that COVID-19 can infiltrate your major organs, including your brain and heart and connective tissues, setting up long term inflammatory processes.

Even after a mild case of COVID-19, you can get long COVID, a persistent debilitating state with fatigue, brain fog, painful joints and muscles, heart problems and more.

Research is showing children have a higher risk of developing diabetes after COVID-19 infection. There is still so much we do not know, particularly the potential for long term effects on the brain or the heart or other organs ten or 20 years from now.

Think your vaccine will help you? Yes, it is now well-established that three doses of vaccine substantially reduce your risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death. But “reduced risk” does not mean “no risk” and the converse of half of ICU admissions being for unvaccinated people is that half of ICU admissions are currently for vaccinated people.

And if you think being young and fit and healthy is an impenetrable shield of protection, think again. Even though it is “less likely” that you can become seriously ill, it happens — even if you are otherwise well and vaccinated.

“Getting it over and done with” also doesn’t get it over and done with. Data from the United Kingdom are now showing that people are getting the Omicron infection a second or third time. If your first encounter wasn’t too bad, there’s nothing to say the second or subsequent bouts will go easy on you.

Every new infection is an opportunity for the virus to infect more people. Even if your illness is “mild” and self-limiting, the Omicron variant is highly transmissible and the other people you infect may not be so fortunate. They may be unvaccinated children or people who are medically vulnerable who have not made the choice to become infected.

The people you infect may be emergency workers, first responders or the ones responsible for transporting foods or medicines and stocking the supermarket shelves, and we are seeing the first signs of what it means when large numbers of essential workers are not able to go to work.

Photo by Dids from Pexels

Australia has seen over a million people infected with COVID-19, half of those on the past two months as safeguards were removed. 

We don’t really know the true numbers of infections because of the debacle with overloaded PCR testing and the poor planning for the availability of rapid antigen tests.

More infections in the community means more likelihood of a new variant emerging.

It also means more likelihood of our health system collapsing under the strain. This is not just about treating you if you have severe COVID illness, it also means you might have trouble getting an ambulance if you have an accident or a heart attack or a stroke, or the date of your necessary but elective surgery procedure is pushed out into the Never-Never. It also means difficulty having your routine preventive health checks done, or getting to see a dentist.

Healthcare workers are restrained from speaking out, but the messages we are hearing tell a story of a system on the brink. Healthcare workers need everyone to be doing their bit to reduce the load, not increase it.

And if you think “getting it over and done with” will give you an infinite free pass to an infection-free future, think again. We now know that immunity is likely to last a matter of months, not years. Immunity from vaccination or natural infection wanes over time, and will not prevent you from getting the infection again.

Be aware also that talk of the disease becoming “endemic” is not realistic. This is an epidemic infection which will continue to come in waves as new variants emerge.

Infection is not inevitable and it is not necessary, but there are no quick fixes. We need to use the tools we have to prevent transmission from one person to the next. Wear an N95 mask when you are not at home, get tested if you are a close contact, get a test and isolate if you are symptomatic, stay in isolation if your test is positive, avoid groups and crowds, work from home if you can, improve building ventilation, improve air quality, and install CO2 monitors. 

Taking the longer view means buying time for the medical researchers to develop safe and effective treatments and improved vaccines.

So how about instead of “getting it over and done with”, you take the longer view about protecting yourself, your family and friends, your community, healthcare workers, the health system and the economy.

This article is republished from Independent Australia under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is an IA columnist, general practitioner, advisory board member and conjoint professor at NICM Health Research Institute, a Climate 200 advisory panel member, a member of OzSAGE and a former Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor. You can follow her on Twitter @drkerrynphelps.

Catching COVID

Here’s where (and how) you are most likely to catch COVID – new study


Trish Greenhalgh, University of Oxford; Jose-Luis Jimenez, University of Colorado Boulder; Shelly Miller, University of Colorado Boulder, and Zhe Peng, University of Colorado Boulder

Two years into the pandemic, most of us are fed up. COVID case rates are higher than they’ve ever been and hospitalisation rates are once again rising rapidly in many countries.

Against this bleak picture, we yearn to get back to normal. We’d like to meet friends in a pub or have them over for dinner. We’d like our struggling business to thrive like it did before the pandemic. We’d like our children to return to their once-familiar routine of in-person schooling and after-school activities. We’d like to ride on a bus, sing in a choir, get back to the gym, or dance in a nightclub without fear of catching COVID.

Which of these activities is safe? And how safe exactly? These were the questions we sought to answer in our latest research.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, spreads mainly by airborne transmission. So the key to preventing transmission is to understand how airborne particles behave, which requires knowledge from physics and chemistry.

Air is a fluid made up of invisible, rapidly and randomly moving molecules, so airborne particles disperse over time indoors, such as in a room or on a bus. An infected person may exhale particles containing the virus, and the closer you are to them, the more likely you are to inhale some virus-containing particles. But the longer the period you both spend in the room, the more spread out the virus will become. If you are outdoors, the space is almost infinite, so the virus doesn’t build up in the same way. However, someone can still transmit the virus if you’re close to them.

Viral particles can be emitted every time an infected person breathes, but especially if their breathing is deep (such as when exercising) or involves vocalisation (such as speaking or singing). While wearing a well-fitting mask reduces transmission because the mask blocks the release of virus, the unmasked infected person who sits quietly in a corner is much less likely to infect you than one who approaches you and starts a heated argument.

All variants of SARS-CoV-2 are equally airborne, but the chance of catching COVID depends on the transmissibility (or contagiousness) of the variant (delta was more contagious than previous variants, but omicron is more contagious still) and on how many people are currently infected (the prevalence of the disease). At the time of writing, more than 97% of COVID infections in the UK are omicron and one person in 15 is currently infected (prevalence 6.7%). While omicron appears more transmissible, it also seems to produce less severe illness, especially in vaccinated people.

Likelihood of becoming infected

In our study, we have quantified how the different influences on transmission change your risk of getting sick: viral factors (transmissibility/prevalence), people factors (masked/unmasked, exercising/sitting, vocalising/quiet) and air-quality factors (indoors/outdoors, big room/small room, crowded/uncrowded, ventilated/unventilated).

We did this by carefully studying empirical data on how many people became infected in superspreader events where key parameters, such as the room size, room occupancy and ventilation levels, were well-documented and by representing how transmission happens with a mathematical model.

The new chart, adapted from our paper and shown below, gives a percentage likelihood of becoming infected in different situations (you can make it bigger by clicking on it).

Table showing the risk of catching COVID based on various factors.
Risk of catching COVID.
Author provided

A surefire way to catch COVID is to do a combination of things that get you into the dark red cells in the table. For example:

  • Gather together with lots of people in an enclosed space with poor air quality, such as an under-ventilated gym, nightclub or school classroom
  • Do something strenuous or rowdy such as exercising, singing or shouting
  • Leave off your masks
  • Stay there for a long time.

To avoid catching COVID, try keeping in the green or amber spaces in the table. For example:

  • If you must meet other people, do so outdoors or in a space that’s well-ventilated or meet in a space where the ventilation is good and air quality is known
  • Keep the number of people to a minimum
  • Spend the minimum possible amount of time together
  • Don’t shout, sing or do heavy exercise
  • Wear high-quality, well-fitting masks from the time you enter the building to the time you leave.

While the chart gives an estimated figure for each situation, the actual risk will depend on the specific parameters, such as exactly how many people are in a room of what size. If you fancy putting in your own data for a particular setting and activity, you can try our COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission Estimator.

Trish Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford; Jose-Luis Jimenez, Distinguished Professor, Chemistry, University of Colorado Boulder; Shelly Miller, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder, and Zhe Peng, Research Scientist, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.