The uncertainty of Omicron
We learn more details about the Omicron variant – and they are disturbing.
Scientists in South Africa have confirmed perhaps one of the biggest fears about the variant, saying it appears to be spreading twice as fast as Delta, the most contagious version of the coronavirus to date.
Researchers there also released evidence yesterday that the new variant appears to be able to evade immunity gained from a previous infection. As our colleagues Lynsey Chutel and Richard Pérez-Peña pointed out, this means it could potentially wipe out a layer of defense that humanity has been slowly and at a tremendous cost to gain.
A week after Omicron’s documented rise, there’s still a lot we don’t know. The new variant reminds us that dealing with uncertainty will be a regular part of our lives in the pandemic era.
“What’s so hard about this particular moment is that many of us would have felt some relief after being vaccinated and boosted, getting our kids back to school and seeing our friends and relatives again,” my colleague Christina said. Caron, a mental health reporter, said. “But now there’s a feeling of ‘Oh great, here we go again.'”
I spoke to Christina to help us understand the moment and for tips on dealing with uncertainty.
What are the consequences of having so much new unknown?
My colleagues and I on the Well desk recently discussed how many of us have “worry burnout.” Right now, nearly two years after the pandemic, there is a sense of whiplash from the non-stop news cycle — not to mention the ever-changing public health guidelines. It is a challenge to constantly try to estimate the risks you or your family are willing to take.
Are there lessons from earlier in the pandemic that apply at this time?
I think a big one is that the scientific process takes time. It can be fluid and unpredictable, and our understanding of the virus is constantly changing. We cannot expect quick answers tied neatly with a bow, and as difficult as it may be, we must exercise patience.
Uncertainty has somehow always been a part of our lives, but it’s hard to imagine a time when it has been central in so many ways for such a long period of time. I can’t speak for anyone else, but what has helped me feel more comfortable is trying to focus on the here and now. It’s a cliché, but the concept of taking it day by day and living in the moment has become essential as it can be overwhelming to fixate on what might happen in the future.
What are your other tips for dealing with uncertainty?
Practice mindfulness. Meditation can teach you that while there will always be external stressors, you don’t have to be dominated by those problems. Mindfulness can help you remember to return to the present when you get distracted, which can be helpful in controlling worrying thoughts. [Here’s a guide to mediating.]
Cultivate ‘flow’. The state of mind in which you become so involved that time seems to slip away is also helpful during periods of uncertainty. Flow does not arise when you passively watch TV or listen to music. It is more of a mix between work and relaxation. For some people, things like yoga or gardening can generate flow. For others, it may be a puzzle or cooking an elaborate meal.
Concentrate on what you can control. When the news of Omicron surfaced, I was very concerned at first, and the constant churning of anxious thoughts became exhausting. Most of my concerns have centered on my daughter, who recently turned 5. So I decided to buy her some better fitting masks because I noticed her current masks were sliding down her nose. Then I made an appointment for her second dose of the Covid vaccine. Those two simple actions helped me to feel calmer.
How are you?
We asked readers how they approached this next stage of unpredictability:
“Right now I am insensitive to Covid news. I no longer have the energy to worry about a new variant. I have been vaccinated and boosted and trying to live my life in this new normal. I now see the dangers of Covid as driving a car: I put on my seat belt, wear my mask and get on with my life.” — Cecelia, Indianapolis
“Until we have more information about Omicron, I think it’s better to be as careful as possible. So for me it feels like going back to the very beginning of the pandemic. I have three vaccinations and I hope that at least partially helps against Omicron. I have kept contacts outside my family to a minimum.” — Wolfgang Lynen, Munich
“I’ve never felt such burnout, drained and weighed down. I’d be mad at the people who still believe this isn’t real, and vaccines are suspect, but I just can’t summon the energy. I stay close to home, do low-cost self-care as much as possible, and work on projects around the house — again. Moan.” — Boleyn H. Willis, Durham, NC
“Ordered more comfortable N95 masks that perform well in lab tests. List things to save if Omicron disrupts the supply chain. Now go outside because I may not be able to anymore. I will adjust my plans to the perceived risk when more is known.” — Alan Drake, New Orleans
“I don’t think it’s okay to put my life on hold anymore, and I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with it if it keeps going downhill. I’m 37 and it’s cliche, but I’m in the prime of my life. I struggled last winter and am afraid to feel that way again. But I’ve been vaccinated and got the booster, so for now I’m just going to make it through living as I was and hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel someday. — Michelle Craren, New York, NY
“I feel pandemic fatigue permeating deeply. Where I was once “all-in” for wearing face masks and vaccinations, I am increasingly annoyed by the media hype about the ongoing Covid developments. I’m getting more and more skeptical and hopeless. To cope, I will boost my family and continue to wear a mask. But I wonder if my son will ever go to school without a mask. I wonder if my daughter’s marriage in May 2022 will be hindered by Covid. Is herd immunity nothing? When will this end?” — Emily, Boise, Idaho
“As someone living with a chronic illness, I have never known a life with certainty. I feel like the rest of the world is getting a poignant picture of what it’s like to live with chronic conditions. I plan for as much success as possible — wear a mask, get a boost, maybe not go to that indoor concert, be honest with friends and family about my safety plan — then be ready to flip if needed. I may not be living the life I imagined, but I’m still alive, and that’s still something really special, don’t you think?” — Anna Peshock, Louisville, Colo.