I’m shocked, not because we know for a fact that she’s wrong about Omicron being mild but because we don’t know for a fact that she’s right. She’s taking an enormous gamble by giving this advice to millions of viewers, many of whom are surely unvaccinated.
There are some Fox personalities who are cavalier about the threat from COVID but Nicole Saphier normally isn’t one of them. She’s an M.D. who started to get serious airtime on the network back in the first days of the pandemic, when Fox was taking heat over the fact that, well, some of its personalities were cavalier about the threat from COVID. Saphier was the authoritative medical voice who was tapped to counterprogram them: Take it seriously. Stay home. It’s a real threat.
Now here she is, all but encouraging Fox viewers to go out and infect each other with a variant that was identified less than a month ago and whose severity scientists still haven’t formed a consensus about. Watch.
A Fox News segment suggested that unvaccinated people should get Covid-19.
Fox News host Bill Hemmer: "The virus is dying out."
Fox News medical contributor Nicole Saphier: "It's time to allow this mild infection to circulate."
(The CDC recommends vaccines for most people) pic.twitter.com/q9QGv5o95T
— David Edwards (@DavidEdwards) December 15, 2021
I wrote 1,000+ words this morning on the new data about whether Omicron is truly “mild” or not. It might be, or its mildness might be a partial mirage created by the youth and broad natural immunity from previous waves that South Africa enjoys. The key point in all analyses of Omicron, though, is that a virus that’s freakishly infectious, as this one appears to be, needs to also be freakishly mild for there not to be a surge in hospitalizations and deaths. Assume that Omicron is half as lethal as Delta but, as some studies have indicated, four times more transmissible. We’d expect a virus like that to produce twice the death toll Delta did (at least in the non-immune population) despite it being technically “milder.”
How infectious is Omicron? Well, the UK broke its single-day record for cases today and not by a little bit. The previous high was 68,000; today they had 78,000 and they’re on the way up.
The increase of COVID cases in the UK is not just by a little bit. That's a big jump pic.twitter.com/fplg609fpt
— Björn Meyer (@_b_meyer) December 15, 2021
It’s going to reach everyone. And because so many South Africans have natural immunity, scientists still don’t have a sense of what Omicron might do once it arrives in sub-populations with low immunity, as some communities in the U.S. have due to resistance to vaccination. Even “fully vaccinated” communities might see a huge surge in cases. Moderna has typically showed the best results of all vaccines in neutralizing previous variants but a new study today finds that two doses are 50 times less effective against Omicron than they were against the original Wuhan strain. To be meaningfully protected against the variant, only three doses will do. Which means the great majority of Americans are vulnerable to catching it.
Does Saphier not realize that a TV audience of Republicans is among the least likely cohorts to be vaccinated in all of American society?
We have little sense of what Omicron will do to the unvaxxed. Even if it’s as mild as Saphier imagines, it still presents two major risks. One was identified by economist Tyler Cowen, namely, the risk of institutional chaos as basically the entire United States falls ill (but not deathly ill) simultaneously:
Imagine that a significant percentage of students in a school test positive, but no one is seriously ill. Will that school feel compelled to shut down and move to remote learning?
One possibility is that administrators will realize that virtually everyone is going to catch omicron anyway, articulate that reality to their constituencies, and plough ahead with face-to-face instruction. An alternate scenario is that the mere mention of Covid will prove so scary that closure will be inevitable. After all, how much will be known a month or two from now about the prospects of getting Long Covid from omicron? I am expecting a lot of school closures…
In any case, hospitals will have to be ready. But it is likely that a lot of health-care professionals might test positive early next year as well…
What about travel? Many more Americans will be afraid to go abroad. As it now stands, they need to test negative in order to re-enter the country. In January or February, however, the chance of a positive test result might be at an all-time high, even if you are feeling just fine. So there is a risk of a collapse in international travel.
Many infections will be unavoidable given the professional and family obligations people have but it will help reduce the strain on various systems if infections can be minimized. Saphier’s advice is to do the opposite, essentially to go out, get Omicron, and enjoy your immunity.
There’s a second, bigger risk, one I flagged in this morning’s post. It might be that being infected by Omicron renders you immune to Delta and vice versa, but it’s not a sure thing. One prominent virologist has theorized that the two variants are sufficiently distinct that antibodies generated by one won’t be wholly protective against the other. In fact, among the 78,000 cases recorded on the UK’s record-breaking day, fewer than 5,000 have been confirmed as Omicron.
Let’s go deeper:
First, how are cases suddenly shooting up this fast?
Simple: just as we saw with Alpha and Delta, we’re now seeing two epidemics alongside one another. The recent steady rise of Delta masked the take-off of Omicron beneath. There’s no masking it any more. pic.twitter.com/wR1xlKWM7N
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) December 15, 2021
The insanely steep spikes we’re seeing in European cases may not be evidence of Omicron surging and replacing Delta but evidence of Omicron and Delta infecting different sub-populations at the same time. That’s the CDC’s nightmare scenario, that Omicron will hit here full force but won’t sideline Delta by doing so. Instead the two will circulate in tandem, sometimes infecting the same people, and creating a double-whammy wave of sickness with Delta patients suffering somewhat more severe outcomes.
If that’s true then Saphier’s advice is insanely reckless. She’s telling people, including unvaccinated people, to go out and have no fear when doing so risks exposing them to Delta, not just Omicron. What is she thinking? Can we maybe wait a month to confirm that the variant is nothing worse than the “sniffles” before giving this advice?