COVID tracker: Omicron is both less alarming and more alarming than past variants; no wonder we’re confused

  • NH DHHS—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/23/2022 8:01:22 PM

The partner of a colleague recently came down with COVID-19 despite being vaccinated and boostered.

He has shifted to a separate part of the house and is sleeping in the room of a daughter away at college – “I really need to buy her a new mattress,” he yawned. But he wonders how much of that household shift is necessary since he is also vaccinated and boostered.

He’s not alone. A lot of us vaccinated folks are wondering how to act as the Omicron variant sweeps through New Hampshire.

Omicron is much more contagious than previous variants and shows signs of  shrugging off boosters in a South African study and the CDC says “breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur.” The state’s very high count of new cases and continuing high counts of hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 underlines that belief.

But Omicron also appears to produce less severe symptoms than past variants of the SARS-CoV2 virus, especially if you’re vaccinated. “Less severe” doesn’t mean no symptoms, as my colleague’s ill partner demonstrated, and the jury is still out on how much “long COVID” is caused by Omicron. But the evidence is clear that vaccination reduces and may even eliminate symptoms from the new variant.

Get your jabs, folks.

Most encouragingly, the arrival of Omicron in other parts of the world is linked to both a sharp rise and a sharp fall in cases. The daily wastewater analysis in the Boston sewage treatment system that I’ve mentioned in the past is starting to show a similar pattern: biomarkers for COVID-19 shot up in December and early January but have fallen by half in the past week.

This raises the hopeful possibility that many people are getting infected with Omicron without knowing it because they never become ill, meaning that some sort of immunity is spreading faster than we realize. Maybe we can return to normal, whatever that means, by spring!

Alas, as this column has discussed before, immunity isn’t all-or-nothing and it isn’t forever. Even if this proves to be true it doesn’t mean Omicron will create magical “herd immunity” which means that COVID will go away.

It especially doesn’t mean Omicron will protect us if another variant arises out of the quarter of the world which has gotten few if any vaccines.

The variant is so new that we can’t expect solid answers yet. With any luck we’ll soon have better information about when we can lighten up but for the time being the most sensible course of action, even those of us who have gotten every vaccination they offer, is to (deep sigh) keep up with public masks, distancing, avoiding unnecessary indoor crowds – the usual gamut of irritating requirements.

But it could be worse. At least I don’t have to buy a new mattress.

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What’s the trend on the spread and impact of the disease? Remains bad.

The state’s testing (not including home tests) has had an alarming positivity rate of more than 20% this month, indicating how widespread Omicron has become. The number of new cases is so high that many communities are reinstating indoor mask mandates for town and city buildings, despite their unpopularity.

Hospitalizations remain high – over 400 people – and the death rate is around three people a day, also very high. But neither of those has risen in the past few weeks. What that says about the next couple of weeks remains to be seen. Perhaps in February we’ll be writing that the worst has passed.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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