Omicron: don’t lose heart, it’s not a Charlie-Brown-and-the-football situation

Though the news about the omicron variant may make it feel like we're back at square one, we're actually not, NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid writes, adding, "The most appropriate attitude toward the emergence of new variants is not despair but resigned pragmatism."

Winding road

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash.

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You know what I really want? I want this stupid pandemic to be over. I’m tired of the fear. I’m tired of the uncertainty. I’m sad that I’ve become numb to the ever-increasing death toll. And I’m increasingly fed up with feeling angry at the people who refuse to do what’s best for the community. Have all the efforts that so many of us have made to protect ourselves and others been for nothing?

This pandemic often feels like that recurrent Peanuts cartoon about Lucy and the football—with Lucy always promising that this time will be different, she really will let Charlie Brown kick the ball, only to fool him yet again. In spring 2021, as vaccination rates rose and case numbers dropped, it looked as though normal life was just around the corner. (Remember “Hot Vax Summer”?) Well, the delta variant pulled away the football.

And in just the past week, as case numbers from the delta surge were starting to wane, all adults became eligible for boosters, children over the age of five became eligible for vaccination, and Thanksgiving travel became a thing again, it seemed that maybe this time normal life really was in reach. And then, whoops, here comes omicron to pull the football away again.

That’s how it sometimes feels to me, and maybe to you too. So how do you cope with that frustration, fear, and uncertainty? And (if you’re a teacher) how do you help your students cope?

Well, let’s start with recognizing that the Lucy and Charlie Brown metaphor, however right it feels, doesn’t describe our current situation at all. We are not back at square one, flat on our backs miserably watching Lucy walking away laughing just because a new variant has emerged. We are in a vastly better position than we were in March 2020, or January 2021, or even August 2021. No, really, we are.

I’m going to propose a different metaphor. My husband and I are cyclists. Well, my husband is a cyclist and I’m a (usually) good-natured cyclist impersonator. We ride in San Francisco and in Marin County, and if you’ve never been here, let me just tell you that what we’re talking about here is hills and plenty of ’em. And some of the hills around here are long—you have to ride uphill for miles at a time. So that’s hard enough, but there’s this one annoying reality that makes it even harder.

Sometimes, as you’re riding up a hill, you look ahead and you see that the hill will be ending soon. “Hurrah,” you think, “soon the pain will be over!” And then you get to what you thought was the top of the hill and you see that it’s not really the top. There’s still more hill ahead, you just couldn’t see it from below. This is called a “false summit” (although it perhaps should be called a “sad place.”)

Where we were last June—before delta—was a false summit. Where we were as delta was waning—before omicron—was a false summit. And there will no doubt be more false summits, because the novel coronavirus is firmly entrenched around the world and new variants are going to continue to emerge. The original vaccines may not provide as robust immunity against them as they did against the strain they were designed to neutralize. The new variants may grow ever more transmissible (there is, after all, powerful selection for enhanced transmissibility!) But even if the vaccines’ effectiveness drops, even if it drops quite a bit, these new variants will not cause spikes in serious illness, hospitalization, or death among the vaccinated. We are never going to be back in the situation we faced in March 2020 when, with no natural immunity, no vaccines, and no effective therapies, the only thing we could do was shelter in place and do our best to avoid the virus until some kind of medical intervention became available.

The most appropriate attitude toward the emergence of new variants is not despair but resigned pragmatism. Variants will happen. That’s evolution.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the omicron variant itself or about the questions about it that scientists are currently rushing to answer: Will it be more contagious? Will it cause more severe symptoms? Will it evade pre-existing natural or vaccine-induced immunity? There are lots of great articles out there exploring these questions (and the take-home message from all of them tends to be “We don’t know yet”). There are good overviews from a group of South Africa researchers here and The New York Times here, and here The Atlantic provides a particularly clear explanation about why booster shots will help protect you from omicron despite all those mutations in the spike protein. And speaking of all those mutations, this report in Science discusses the leading hypotheses about their origin.

Each of these sources will help you explain omicron to your students, but I think the most important idea you can convey is that the most appropriate attitude toward the emergence of new variants is not despair but resigned pragmatism. Variants will happen. That’s evolution. The effectiveness of vaccines will wane over time. That’s evolution, combined with the natural arc of our immune systems. We will probably have to hang on to our masks for a while and to continue to be careful in crowded places, to protect ourselves from contracting and spreading the virus. You may be sick for a few days if you do contract the virus despite being vaccinated. (You are vaccinated, right? If not, and you can be, maybe now would be a good time to take care of that.) As new and future variants surge through our communities, we may want to be even a little more careful. It’s more important than ever to adhere to simple, commonsense, and really not all-that-onerous public health precautions to protect those around us who are immunocompromised or otherwise unable to be vaccinated. But it is overwhelmingly likely that schools will be able to stay open. Vaccinated people will be able to continue to go to restaurants and gather with their vaccinated family members. We can continue to travel and work in our offices. We are not back at the bottom of the hill. It’s just that what we thought was the top of the hill is another false summit.

So if you, or your students, start to despair, remember that although we may be a bit discouraged when we see another hill ahead of us, it’s important to take a look back and appreciate how far we’ve come.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.