William Miller, MD
Let’s talk about COVID fatigue. I am not talking about the lack of energy that some people feel after having an infection with COVID, but the fatigue that we are all feeling from hearing about COVID. The most recent reporting spreading through the news media is hype about the BA.5 subvariant of Omicron now becoming the dominant strain. People are talking about it as if it is something new. However, we have known all along that every new variant that has an advantage over previous variants will eventually become the dominant strain. Last month, I reported on BA.5 and how it was expected to replace BA.2 as the dominant strain in America. Now it has. What we should be focusing on is not that some new strain has come along, because there will always be some new strain coming along. Instead, the question we should be asking is, “Is this new strain causing more serious illness and leading to our hospitals getting overwhelmed?” If the answer is “No”, then let’s stop talking about it.
The current total number of COVID patients in our three hospitals in Mendocino County is 4. When that number jumped from 1 patient to 4 patients, I heard one health official state with alarm that this is a 300% increase. Well, yes, it is since 300% of 1 is 3 or triple, and a 300% increase means you add that 3 to the original number 1 for a new total of 4. My point is, that while hearing that there has been a 300% increase in COVID hospitalizations is more dramatic, saying that the number went from 1 to 4 perhaps keeps it in better perspective. By the way, the number has stayed steady around there and has not been increasing further.
Similarly, I take exception to reports that try to make the current “surge” more significant than it really is by pointing out that home testing means that we are not capturing all the true positives. Again, that is correct, but so what? What matters most is what the impact is of having more COVID cases. If the number of people getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, or dying remains relatively low, then the “surge” is not causing a serious threat. This is what we have been consistently seeing with the Omicron variants. They are more easily spread, but cause less serious illness. The number of daily COVID deaths in the US since Omicron became the dominant variant four months ago has hovered around 300, fluctuating from about 200 deaths per day to just under 400. Compare that with Delta, when we were seeing an average of 2,600 US deaths per day.
With each new strain, there has been a great deal of speculation as to whether it will somehow be able to avoid our vaccine induced protections. What seems to get reported are the speculations that are the most dire. Perhaps health officials would rather err on the side of caution instead of describing a less worrisome scenario then might lead to people letting their guards down. For me, what it boils down to is the question, are people who were previously vaccinated now suddenly getting seriously ill? The answer so far is no. As long as the answer remains no, then let’s not speculate on the what ifs.
The problem that I see with this constant alarmist reporting in the news every time a new COVID variant pops up is what is referred to in psychology as “alarm fatigue”. When we are constantly encountering alarms going off in our environment, we eventually become desensitized to them. This is especially a problem in both healthcare and in the aviation industry. In other words, too many alarms occurring too frequently eventually leads to us ignoring them all together. The risk is when that really important alarm does go off, it may go unnoticed with serious results. COVID is still with us and is still something we need to take seriously. However, COVID fatigue seems to be leading many of us to just say the heck with it.
To be clear, I am not saying that COVID is a thing of the past. We have seen a real impact this summer due to the current increase in transmissions. That impact is in the number of workers who must isolate because they catch COVID. This number is higher for sure. This then has an impact on businesses, including healthcare. However, these people are staying home, some feel pretty bad, and then they recover. I still wear a mask when in crowded public areas and I recommend you all do the same. I am vaccinated with two shots of Pfizer followed by a Pfizer booster and I plan to get the second booster when we get closer to the fall. Again, I recommend you all get vaccinated as well.
The solution to COVID fatigue seems to me to be for news media and our health officials to be more selective about when to report on these new variants. Let’s not hear about them unless we are really sure that they pose a threat worth talking about.