Dr. Jessica Kiss (a Southern California family physician) has responded to many questions on COVID-19 via her TikTok account @AskDrMom. But one of the most surprising came on Jan. 3, which also happened to be a record-breaking day for new U.S. cases: “Should you deliberately get Omicron?”
While COVID-19 has been a major concern for most of us over the years, others are now considering the alternative. Their perverse logic mirrors that behind chickenpox parties, at which parents would purposely expose their kids to the virus to get the infection “out of the way” and kickstart immunity.
But as Kiss said on TikTok, “It wasn’t a good idea then, and it’s not now.”
Omicron is contagious, so many people, vaccinated as well as unvaccinated will be infected by it during the wave. Over a million people were diagnosed in the U.S. with COVID-19. This led experts and others to believe that there may not be a way to avoid the disease forever. Breakthrough infections have become common, and for those who are fully vaccinated and boosted, they’re likely to be fairly mild.
But actively trying to get infected isn’t wise for anyone, experts say. It’s an unnecessary gamble for fully vaccinated people, and for those who aren’t vaccinated, it’s like playing “Russian roulette with an automatic handgun,” says Dr. Laolu Fayanju, regional medical director for Oak Street Health in Ohio.
This approach has several flaws, according to Akiko Iwasaki (an immunobiologist at Yale University School of Medicine) who studies viral immunity. First, there’s no way to predict how serious a case of COVID-19 will be. Strong protection is already provided by vaccines and boosters. Third, an infection could cause a chain reaction, potentially resulting in other infections that can be devastating.
“The risk-to-benefit calculation here is very clear to me,” Iwasaki says. “The risk is so much higher than whatever benefit you might reap.”
So far, data suggest that people infected by the Omicron variant are less likely to be hospitalized than people infected by previous strains of COVID-19, and those who are admitted for care don’t seem to get as sick as patients in earlier waves. Omicron has a lower risk of causing severe lung damage.
Omicron can be fatal even though the virus is generally milder than some other types. More than 1400 Americans died of COVID-19 on Jan. 3, while more than 100,000 people were admitted to hospital. Unvaccinated, elderly and medically vulnerable people are at the highest risk, but there’s no 100% guarantee for anyone. There’s also no way to know if you’re exposing yourself to the Omicron variant versus the still-circulating and more-severe Delta variant, since consumer tests do not differentiate between different strains.
Long COVID refers to the long-term effects of COVID-19, which can include fatigue, brain fog, and other symptoms that persist after the acute COVID-19 infection has resolved. Long COVID is possible even for mild cases. Although vaccination has been shown to significantly decrease the chance of developing Long COVID from an infection, there is still the possibility that you could get it after a serious case.
“People don’t know if they’re going to [be one] of the folks who are able to endure an infection with few long-term consequences,” Fayanju says. There’s no reason to intentionally take that risk, he says.
But what about the idea that recovering from COVID-19 can provide “super immunity” for those who are fully vaccinated? It’s true that each encounter with COVID-19 likely confers some level of natural immunity, and mixing those defenses with vaccination seems to provide a stronger-still response. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that “vaccinating previously infected individuals significantly enhances their immune response and effectively reduces the risk of subsequent infection.”
Other studies suggest that people who get sick after they’re vaccinated also see immune perks. A recent research letter found that a small group of fully vaccinated (but unboosted) people experienced an antibody surge after recovering from breakthrough infections, and another small, not-yet-peer-reviewed study found that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people who had an Omicron infection also gained some protection against the Delta variant.
These benefits are silver linings for people who accidentally get sick, but Iwasaki says it’s unnecessary to seek out infection for an immune bump; you can get similar benefits from vaccines and a booster, which are proven to be safe and effective. Plus, natural immunity wanes over time, and there’s no guarantee that getting Omicron will protect you from the next unknown variant that could be around the corner. “We know that the booster induces quite robust antibodies, even against Omicron,” Iwasaki says. “Why not get your immunity that way?”
COVID-19 can be fatal if it is not treated promptly. Every person infected with COVID-19 may spread it to others. This includes those who are too young or medically fragile. If some people deliberately get sick, potentially setting off a chain of transmission, “it has the potential to just explode the number of people who are ill and then swamp our already overwhelmed and overburdened health care system,” Fayanju says.
Thinking of that situation getting worse because people want to get sick, he says, “puts a chill up my spine.”