Dr. Jeff Hersh
Q: If I decide not to get vaccinated for COVID and I get infected, it is my problem and no one else’s. Why should anyone care?
A: COVID-19 is an infectious disease; the almost 900,000 people who have died from it in the U.S. had to “get it” from someone else. New variants of COVID-19 may occur due to mutations of the virus in someone who is infected, so infected people are human “petri dishes” where these new variants may develop. The sheer numbers of people who get infected and require treatment and/or hospitalization may overwhelm the health care system, causing other patients to have their care delayed for such things as surgery and cancer treatments. These are just a couple of the indirect effects of the COVID pandemic that illustrate the weaknesses of the argument “If I decide not to be vaccinated and I get infected, it is my problem and no one else’s”; by definition a pandemic is “a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world”, and so one person’s infection may affect many other people.
The omicron variant is clearly much more infectious than prior variants; it is estimated to be five times more infectious than the delta variant. That is why the number of people becoming infected is skyrocketing.
Thankfully, omicron is, in general, causing milder disease in many people, especially in people who have been vaccinated and boosted. However, the smaller percentage of those infected that end up hospitalized and/or dying multiplied by the much higher number of people being infected is still yielding very high numbers. Particularly in the unvaccinated and in those with risk factors, too many people are still getting sick enough to require hospitalization and are dying. In fact, COVID hospitalizations in the U.S. recently hit record highs, including the numbers of pediatric patients requiring hospitalization.
The good news is that in some places the peak of omicron infections has passed, and numbers are on the way down. The bad news is that this is not (yet) true everywhere in the U.S., and the numbers for hospitalizations and deaths will lag behind the infection peaks. Once again, the present wave of hospitalizations and deaths is occurring primarily in the unvaccinated. Unvaccinated people are over 10 times more likely to die of COVID from the omicron variant than are those fully vaccinated, and 5 to 15 times more likely to be hospitalized (5 times more likely for those ages 12 to 34 and 15 times more likely for those over 65).
The hope is that the present COVID wave from omicron may help us move from the pandemic phase of this infection (where the disease is spreading rapidly throughout the entire country) to an endemic spread of the disease (where it will have flare ups within a community or region, as the flu does every year). In other words, this is the difference between:
- A very bad flu year in the U.S.: where 40 million cases, 700,000 hospitalizations and 50,000 deaths occur over four months or so, yielding averages of 330,000 per day infected, 31,000 hospitalized on an average day and 416 dying per day.
- And the present COVID omicron numbers: which are many times higher than that, with up to the 700,000 cases per day, 140,000 hospitalized on just one day last Sunday and 2,000 to 3,000 dying per day.
However, there is no way to know if the next variant of COVID will be more or less infectious, and/or more or less virulent than the prior variants. The 63 percent of people in the U.S. that are fully vaccinated (72 percent having had at least one dose) is a start, but we MUST do better if we are going to move past this. If you are not vaccinated, PLEASE reconsider that decision. Your decision has consequences which affect many other people besides yourself.
Jeff Hersh, Ph.D., M.D., can be reached at [email protected]