Newest evidence that Omicron is mild: Florida poop?

(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

Poop will never steer you wrong. If you’re a virologist picking through a big mound of poop, you know what you’ll find?

Truth, that’s what.

Other stuff too, but mostly truth.

It’s well known since the start of the pandemic that scientists can get advance notice of a COVID outbreak in a community by measuring how much virus there is in the local wastewater. Infected people don’t shed the virus only through their mouths and noses, after all. They shed it through … other openings too. And they can begin shedding it before they experience symptoms, making wastewater a sort of early warning system about an uptick in cases.

Orange County, Florida, is home to DisneyWorld, SeaWorld, and Universal Studios. Researchers there have been checking the wastewater and found something interesting. Omicron is suddenly prevalent — but Omicron patients at local hospitals are not.

Is this the smoking gun that the new variant is as mild as we hope?

The omicron variant has quickly surpassed the delta variant in collections taken from wastewater sampling sites in Orange County, officials said.

A sampling this week showed that omicron represented almost 100% of the strains in the samples from the wastewater facilities, Orange County Utilities spokesperson Sarah Lux said in an email.

It’s a different story when it comes to people seeking treatment for COVID-19, officials said.

“Those who are hospitalized are being primarily infected by the delta variant,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Wednesday at a news conference held at the Orlando International Airport.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to gauge what sort of spike in cases Orange County might be seeing this week. They don’t report daily data, only weekly, so we’ll have to wait for the next weekly update to know. Hospitalizations have increased by 24 percent there in the last 14 days, but as noted above, that seems to be mainly a Delta phenomenon.

What would it mean if it turns out cases *have* spiked but hospitalizations haven’t? A few possibilities.

1. Omicron really is milder, obviously.

2. The wave of hospitalizations is coming but it hasn’t happened yet. It takes time for someone to go from infection to symptoms to ER care.

3. There’s plenty of immunity in Florida and in Orange County in particular. The vaccination rate is a bit above the national average there, with 65 percent fully vaxxed and 76 percent having had one dose. And the terrible Delta wave Florida suffered in August may have generated a lot of natural immunity that’s helping to hold Omicron at bay.

4. Kids are overrepresented in the sample. Orange County is ground zero for American theme parks, which means lots of children running around. We all know by now that kids almost never need hospital care for COVID.

Those four possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive. All could be true — Orange County might be better prepared for a new outbreak due to demographics and the recent history of the pandemic there and hospital admissions are destined to climb soon and Omicron is less severe on average, leading to fewer hospitalizations than a Delta wave would have. In fact, all of those things are true in South Africa. More people there are in the ER lately but doctors are optimistic because the variant seems milder and the population seems to be benefiting from high natural immunity.

Figuring out how virulent Omicron is will occupy scientists for weeks to come but they’re already finished with the other part of the equation, transmissibility. Verdict: It’s really, really contagious. This is Bill de Blasio’s top science advisor:

It may be that the virus was spreading more quickly in the earliest days of the pandemic, before testing, but that’s the fastest NYC has seen it move since testing began in earnest. Even so, incoming mayor Eric Adams told reporters today, “It’s going to take a lot for me to lock down the city,” further evidence that pandemic fatigue has begun spreading in earnest on the left. At the Week, Noah Millman describes himself as a “COVID moderate” who’s become radicalized against restrictions:

It’s not particularly controversial to say that sort of thing in mainstream circles. But it’s far less common to point out that, at this point in the pandemic, there are almost no non-pharmaceutical interventions that make any sense at all. And if mask mandates, physical distancing, capacity restrictions, and other rules put in place before widespread vaccination don’t make sense, they should be dropped — not reluctantly, but enthusiastically. It’s past time for healthy, vaccinated adults and children to resume living normal lives…

So why are our authorities catering to neurosis and fear rather than explaining the truth: that the virus is never going away, and the way to protect yourself and others is to get vaccinated and boosted. Why isn’t that the only message?

The only thing that’s going to help against a virus as contagious as Omicron is vaccination, Millman argues. Everything else is window dressing.

Speaking of which, I’ll leave you with Republicans’ new favorite Democrat, the governor of Colorado. He sounds like the governor of Florida here — except for his deference to local control, which is classically conservative but not “Ron DeSantis conservative.”