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Omicron can be ‘like the flu’ for the vaccinated bay area, but it kills 3 times as many as the flu elsewhere

The Omicron variant has been widely hailed by both experts and experts as a possible key out of the pandemic and into an endemic phase of COVID, and the talk of being able to "live with COVID as the flu" is everywhere right now.

But after two years of being hit by hospitalization rates and mortality statistics, it can be difficult to fully digest the reality of what is happening nationwide during this so-called "milder" wave of COVID. And the reality is still a 9/11 value of deaths every other day - with some days with up to 2,000 deaths. Yes, it's largely unvaccinated and / or elderly people, but the number of continued deaths, with the national number likely to peak at 860,000 this week, is still sober.

Anyone who wants to equate COVID with the flu is still stretching the facts. In 2021 alone, as the Bay Area News Group notes, COVID killed eight times as many Americans as the flu did in the 2017-18 season, which was considered the worst flu season in a decade. And the Omicron variant, although less deadly, still makes many people very ill - and in just one week this month, Omicron killed three times as many people as died in the worst week of the 2017-18 flu season.

Until we get to the endemic stage where the vast majority of Americans have some form of immunity to COVID and deaths fall off a cliff, so to speak, we are still looking at pandemic death levels and the growing grief for families to death. And even at the endemic stage, we can still live with a virus that is far more deadly than the flu, full stop - and that presupposes that an even more harmful variant does not emerge.

"We've learned a little bit about living and living with the flu," Warner Greene, a virologist at SF's Gladstone Institutes, told the Bay Area News Group. "Hopefully we can get there with COVID, but we are not there yet."

Here in the Bay Area, COVID deaths have largely fallen off a cliff, probably thanks to high vaccination rates and boosters - despite still extremely high rates of Omicron transmission. After the holiday weekend on Tuesday, for example, Bay Area counties registered over 45,000 new cases of COVID, but zero new deaths.

Dr. Marin County Health Officer Matt Willis spoke with SFGate this week and sounded some tones of optimism. He mentioned far fewer cases of extreme respiratory distress among those hospitalized with COVID, and patients leaving the hospital after relatively severe cases do so with less need for supplemental oxygen than with previous variants. And Willis notes that wastewater testing for virus prevalence - now considered by public health experts to be a better indicator than case counters - shows that a plateau has already begun around the Bay Area.

The next phase, Willis says, will be largely psychological.

"One of the primary challenges now is to change our mindset," Willis tells SFGate. "Our mental models and policies are based on a virus that was one thing in the past and is something else now. It makes sense that our response to the virus is also changing, but our experience of collective trauma over the past two years do not. Do not be forgotten overnight. "

Some experts have warned that there is nothing to stop COVID from developing yet another, much more horrific variant that both makes people sicker and avoids all vaccines, but Willis calls this doomsday scenario "Very unlikely."

"The smartest viruses like the common cold have learned to coexist peacefully with the human population because they do not make you so ill that you can not move around in society and infect others," Willis says. "So it's a strong driving force for evolution, and Omicron is the perfect example of that. Omicron shows how successful it is at copying itself across the population by not making people very sick and being extremely contagious."

Yet the caveat here is that it's all based on probability, Willis says, and everyone agrees that it's still too early to say for sure.

Photo: Getty Images

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