Do the Omicron numbers mean what we think they mean?

The United States is recording, on average, more than eight hundred thousand coronavirus cases a day, three times last winter’s peak. Given the growing use of at-home tests, this official count greatly underestimates the true number of infections. We don’t know how many rapid tests are used each day, or what proportion return positive, rendering unreliable traditional metrics, such as a community’s test-positivity rate, which is used to guide policy on everything from school closures to sporting events.

There are many other numbers we’d like to know. How likely is Omicron to deliver not an irritating cold but the worst flu of your life? How does that risk increase with the number and severity of medical conditions a person has? What are the chances of lingering symptoms following a mild illness? How long does immunity last after a booster shot or an infection? Americans aren’t waiting to find out. Last week, rates of social distancing and self-quarantining rose to their highest levels in nearly a year, and dining, shopping, and social gatherings fell to new lows. Half of Americans believe that it will be at least a year before they return to their pre-pandemic lives, if they ever do; three-quarters feel that they’re as likely, or more so, to contract the virus today—a year after vaccines became available—as they were when the pandemic began.