My Current, Full Thoughts on COVID and Omicron and Maine

I’m not really sure why I’m writing this post. It’s more for me than it is for everyone else, I guess. I know that at this point, it seems most people I interact with are just over COVID. They’re tired of dealing with it, worrying about it, planning how to handle it, and just generally tired over all. I completely sympathize, of course, but I also know that me being tired of it doesn’t have any influence over what’s actually happening. I might wish it were over, but it isn’t.

This is particularly important on a local level because Maine is at its peak hospitalization rate right now, and Omicron hasn’t even really hit us yet. I’m not a health official, so my opinion is just that, but I’ve been tracking case rates locally, nationally, and globally, and since Omicron has come out, it’s always been very easy to see when Omicron made it to a new spot. The numbers don’t just go up, they skyrocket. I watched India’s numbers, and as soon as a blip started, I was pretty sure Omicron was there, judging from the pattern. That was December 28th, when they went from having about 6,000 cases per day to 9,000 cases one day. January 12th, just a bit more than 2 weeks later, they had 442,000 new cases, and I’d be very surprised if they’ve come close to peaking. My guess is they have another 2 weeks to go before they reach the top.

In Florida, they had that first blip back around December 14th. A bit more than 4 weeks later, it’s looking like things might be peaking there. DC has followed close to the same pattern, as has New York and New Jersey. Just looking at other countries as well, it’s usually about a month from blip to peak, and then it takes a long while for that peak to come down. A month after their peak, South Africa still has more than 5 times as many cases each day as they had before the blip started. Their death rate is still climbing, though it’s still less than half of what they experienced for the Delta wave. (Remember: even though Omicron is “less severe” than what’s come before, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any harmful effects. And we’re still finding out how it behaves in larger populations of unvaccinated people. America: leading the world in epidemiological research yet again.)

We haven’t had that skyrocketing in Maine yet. I’ve seen it start in southern Maine back on January 4th, but elsewhere in the state, it hasn’t done much at all. In fact, it’s been decreasing, as our bout with Delta peaked just about when Omicron was getting underway everywhere else. Here where I live, there’s a chance that Omicron finally showed up at the beginning of the week, but I’m still waiting to see the latest numbers to feel completely confident about that. Overall, I expect case rates in Maine to get much worse, very quickly. If the pattern of other places holds, then we’re talking 7-10 times as many cases as we had before the blip, about a month from now. Hospitalizations double or triple, though there’s a bit more variation on that. (And with Maine’s aging population, I expect ours to be worse than others’.)

True, perhaps having just had a surge of Delta, we’ll be spared some of the worst of Omicron. I have no idea what sort of impact they’ll have together, but I’m still expecting a bad rest of January and most of February. Our hospitals are already close to overwhelmed with our current rates. Imagine doubling or tripling that. Even if the people being hospitalized are not as bad as pre-Omicron, that’s still a very bleak future, and I’m very worried for all of my friends in the health industry.

Which is why it’s frustrating to read articles like this one, that promise “signs of hope” already in Maine. Sure, if you want to say that knowing that rates eventually peak means that we can be hopeful rates will peak here in Maine, I suppose that’s a sign of hope. “It’ll all be over soon” isn’t exactly the most hopeful message, especially when “soon” means “a month from now” and “over” means “still much worse than it is now” and “it” means “tons worse than it is right now.”

It’s also frustrating to see how badly prepared we are for this. We’ve known for weeks and weeks that regular cloth masks do almost nothing against Omicron. How do I know this? Because I ordered KN95 masks and N95 masks back at the end of November, when I’d read enough research to know it was time to up my mask game. But we still have the old mask advice, and it’s lucky to see anyone in a mask at all, let alone in one that will do any good. (It’s also frustrating to know the non-maskers will just use this as another piece of “evidence” that they were right all along to not mask.)

I’ve long said that a big advantage Maine has over the rest of the country is that we can see what mistakes everyone else makes before we have to handle a problem on our own. That’s true for many things other than just COVID. But I see many in Maine who seem to think we’re already in the middle of Omicron, and we just aren’t prepared for what’s coming. I want to be wrong. I will be so happy if I am. But if I am, this will be the one spot of all the spots I’ve been tracking where I’ve been wrong. This information has all been out there, freely available, to anyone who felt like looking. But because people are tired of worrying about it, they just stopped looking.

So what am I doing to prepare? Other than having nicer masks, we’re stocking up on essential supplies again. I’m advising everyone I know to avoid taking any unnecessary risks over the next month and a half. Nothing that would give an increased chance of needing to go to the hospital, since hospital services will be severely impacted. I’m preparing for multiple stores and services to shut down for a week or two, not because of any mandates, but because there literally aren’t enough well workers to be able to run operations. I’m expecting schools to go full remote for the same reason. Not for long: just a couple of weeks, until the peak is over, and we have enough well people to make do again.

I’m expecting to get Omicron. I’m expecting everyone in my family to get it, and most of the people I know. I think that’s more pessimistic than what will actually happen, since my family is all double vaxxed, and Tomas and Denisa and I are boosted. But I’ve learned over the last 2 years to be prepared for the pessimistic side of things to win out. That said, I expect my family to get through it mostly fine. The odds are very much in our favor, with our age, health, and low number of co-morbidities. It’s likely at least some of us will not feel good at all for a week or so, but I’m hopeful we’ll get through all of that. If things are worse than I expect, I’ll at least know I’ve done everything I can to mitigate this as much as possible.

I could go on with what I’m expecting, but I think you can guess the rest, and I don’t really feel like belaboring the point now. I’m trying to focus on a time in the middle of February, give or take, when we’re through the worst, and we can begin to reasonably hope that things will be improving, at least until the next variant comes along. But by then, my hope is that since most people will have had a version of COVID, its effects are much less.

My next book (Don’t Go to Sleep) takes place in the middle of the Spanish Influenza outbreak in New Orleans. I did a lot of research into that earlier pandemic, and I feel like that’s prepared me quite well for what to expect out of this one. It came in waves as well. I imagine those were caused by different variants. The first wasn’t terrible. The second was awful. The third not as bad, and it subsided from there. It’s just what pandemics do.

I’m not here to make everyone depressed, but at this point, the thing that’s helped me the most is to have as clear of a picture of what to expect as possible, and to know what I can do to get me and mine through it all as best we can. For the next month, that means hunkering down as much as is reasonable (knowing that the side effects of complete isolation are just not something I’m interested in doing again). It means wearing N95 and KN95 masks. And it means being ready to be sick for a while.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong?

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