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Opinion: Is this how the pandemic ends?

Does omicron finish our two-year COVID-19 nightmare like the grand finale of some awful fireworks show

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A person is tested by Nomi Health for COVID-19 at Cottonwood Heights City Hall parking lot on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

A person is tested by Nomi Health for COVID-19 at Cottonwood Heights City Hall parking lot on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Is this how it ends?

Does COVID-19 bow out in a spectacular crescendo, like the grand finale of an awful fireworks display?

Omicron is all around us. If you haven’t gotten it, you probably thought you had, or you certainly know someone who has.

I got a text message from the Health Department earlier this week telling me I had been exposed — the result of a cellphone tracking program I signed up for a year ago. Someone who also had enabled his or her cellphone for exposure notifications had tested positive, and had stood close to me within the last few days.

As a result, I spent 212 hours Thursday sitting in my car, inching through a seemingly endless line to two people with saliva jars and nose swabs. 

I tested negative, but if I feel poorly in the coming days, I won’t have to repeat the ordeal. 

At a news conference Friday, Gov. Spencer Cox and the state’s epidemiologist put an end to all the long testing lines. My experience the day before quickly fell into history alongside gas lines in the 1970s and the rationing cards of WWII. If you feel sick, they said, assume you’ve got the omicron variant and stay home until it passes, unless you are a vulnerable person or are about to be around one.

Expect the number of positive cases to drop dramatically. That won’t reflect what’s actually happening. People just won’t be tested.

As pandemic crescendos go, we could do worse than omicron. Some people may require hospitalization. Some may even die. But most will have mild symptoms, especially if they have been vaccinated.

Will the combination of vaccinations and widespread exposure to omicron finally give the world the immunity it needs to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, or at least to get it to settle into an endemic stage, much like the seasonal flu? 

A lot of people think so. Writing for The Atlantic this week, Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, said this will be more than just a matter of people throwing up their hands and trying to get used to high rates of infection and death.

“Viruses are most dangerous when they are introduced into a population that has never had contact with them before,” he wrote. “The more ‘immunologically naive’ people are, the more of them are likely to suffer from bad outcomes. This suggests that the next few months could provide us with significant protection against future strains of the virus.”

As our bodies become more prepared for COVID-19, they will be better able to fight off further strains. 

Which doesn’t mean you should let down your guard or try to get infected. Hospitals remain overwhelmed, and even though omicron is much less severe, on average, than previous strains, a higher volume of cases will result in greater demand on an already overburdened health care system. Also, infections among people in the health care industry and other service-oriented jobs can strain resources.

Of all the things Cox said on Friday, the most insightful may have been his observation that people, over the last two years, have a hard time adjusting their mindset from one variant to the next. That may be one of the overriding themes to this pandemic.

First, we were told not to wear masks. Then we were told to wear them. Quarantine periods went from 14 days to 5. Now, cloth masks no longer are effective, so people are urged to wear something stronger.

To a public largely ignorant about medicine and science, this has fueled conspiracy theories and led to the distrust of public officials. Many conservative states, including Utah, have passed laws curtailing the authority of health departments.

In retrospect, however, the pandemic has been a triumphant moment for science, which was able to develop effective vaccines in record time, and which required nimbleness as the virus, and the knowledge about it, changed.

The last thing any columnist wants to do is to prematurely declare a pandemic over. That’s why I have framed this as a question. As Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said Friday, “This pandemic has proven to be anything but predictable.”

Even Mounk, in The Atlantic, said the end “isn’t a foregone conclusion …”

“Omicron could turn out to afford those it infects with very brief or very weak immunity against other strains,” he said.

But even if the end does turn out to be a false hope, isn’t it nice just to contemplate the end of mask protests, divisive arguments over horse medicine, the politicization of health care, travel bans, online learning and other pandemic struggles that have separated people for nearly two years?