Waiting for omicron
By Michelle Goldberg
You’re not supposed to want to get omicron just to get it over with. In article after article, experts warn against trying to catch the virus in the hope of putting it behind you.
You could end up contributing to the untenable strain on the health care system, they say, or give COVID to someone more vulnerable than you. Treatments will be more widely available in a few months. So even though my impulse, when faced with something both grim and seemingly inevitable, is to get through it as fast as possible, I’ve dutifully taken all the precautions I’ve been told to take, plus a few more.
Until this week, when I’ve found myself squinting at home coronavirus tests and willing a second red line to appear, like years ago when I was trying to get pregnant.
My 9-year-old son tested positive Tuesday morning, after waking up complaining of a slight sore throat. I often get panicky when my kids are sick, but this time I felt a strange sort of resigned calm. The effort to avoid COVID has, to varying degrees, dominated our lives for almost two years, and now, I figured, I could let it go. Some health authorities will tell you to mask your infected kids while at home, but doing so never crossed my mind; I assumed that given omicron’s extreme infectiousness, we’d all have it soon enough. My daughter tested negative, but it seemed responsible to keep her home from school, too.
I hoped that after a couple terrible weeks, this would be over for us. I pictured a winter full of warm indoor dining, movies and play dates with families who wouldn’t have to worry about us getting them sick with COVID.
So we’ve been waiting. And so far, nothing has happened.
Here’s the part where I acknowledge my privilege. My family is healthy, vaccinated and insured. My son’s symptoms lasted less than a day. Being without child care sucks, but for us it’s not a calamity; my husband and I both have flexible jobs and understanding bosses. (I worried that my son might have infected our babysitter on Monday, but so far she’s tested negative.) My husband got a bunch of rapid tests from work, and I found a pharmacy that would deliver more. We’re fine now and will probably still be fine if and when COVID hits us.
But this limbo — which all sorts of families are now enduring — is awful. It’s hard to appreciate being well when you’re expecting to be ill imminently. They say people are contagious one to two days before they first get symptoms and two to three days after, and that the virus takes about three days to incubate. So while I’m surprised that the rest of my family doesn’t have it yet, we could easily have it soon. Dreading quarantine, I hadn’t considered the worse possibility of rolling quarantines, if each of us gets sick days apart. I just want to get it over with.
Of course, while staggered quarantines will be extremely unpleasant for us, they’re likely disastrous for those who can’t work remotely. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people only need to isolate for five days if they’re not experiencing symptoms, in New York City kids still can’t return to school for 10 days. People with more than one child could be stuck at home for weeks on end.
Or not. Since omicron showed up in my house, I’ve learned something weird about it. It is, as we all know, catastrophically transmissible. Yet once I started asking around, I’ve been shocked by how many families I know — all vaccinated — in which some people have gotten it and others haven’t.
One friend’s two boys got it, while she and her husband remained negative, even though none of them wore masks at home. Another friend’s wife and three kids got it over Christmas break, while he avoided it — until this week, when he tested positive. A friend’s daughter got it, and, like me, she kept her other kid home from school, thinking he’d get it, too, but he never did, and neither did she. Someone I know professionally nursed his wife through a bad bout without ever getting infected himself.
We talk so much about omicron evading vaccines that it’s easy to forget that sometimes it doesn’t.
So one problem with trying to get omicron over with is that it might not be up to you. If you live with other people, you can’t just grit your teeth and decide you’re all going to finally put it behind you.
God knows I understand the longing to do so. After 22 months of this pandemic I’m psychologically flailing. At this point, a few weeks of even a bad flu seems preferable to the perpetual anxiety and decision fatigue of this low moment, to reflexively thinking of other people as viral vectors.
Maybe it’s easy for me to say now, but a discrete period of sickness — if the odds are in my favor and I don’t get long COVID — seems easier to endure than a protracted and probably futile struggle to evade sickness. Put simply: I can’t take it anymore. I’m ready to surrender.
But the virus doesn’t care. The desire to get omicron over with is a desire to exert a measure of control in an uncontrollable situation. This interregnum, of waiting to see whether the rest of my family is going to get sick or not, is a reminder of how little control we really have. Right now I feel good. It’s terrible.