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.
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.
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.