It Feels Like March 2020 Again
Thoughts and insights about Omicron, and how my family is handling the holidays.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist, professional speaker and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Well, folks, I had grand plans today to write about why kids turn into Grinches over the holidays. But then I realized that literally everything in my brain right now revolves around Omicron, and I imagine that’s true for you as well, so why not dedicate this newsletter to it, too? (The newsletter title — it feels like March 2020 again — is something a friend of mine texted me yesterday, and isn’t it spot on?)
Over the past week, I’ve been researching Omicron for myself and for stories I’ve been writing. One of the big take-homes is that this is both nothing like what we’ve experienced before, and everything like what we’ve experienced before.
First, how it’s different. One thing we know is that Omicron is very contagious — about four times more contagious than the original strain, and twice as contagious as Delta. This means that masking and distancing are crucial, and that indoor gatherings are quite risky right now. For now, our family has stopped eating indoors in restaurants and having playdates, in part because we are hoping to visit my parents over the holidays and want to minimize the risk of getting them sick. We also decided to pull them out of school today — two days before their holiday vacation starts — because of rising rates where we live, which is one reason why this newsletter is late. (Sorry.)
There is lots of talk about Omicron being milder than Delta, and my fingers are certainly crossed for this. But in my opinion, it’s too soon to say. Early data from South Africa suggest that Omicron has been milder there than Delta, with 29 percent fewer adults being hospitalized compared with earlier waves (though they also found that kids were 20 percent more likely to be hospitalized with Omicron than in the first wave). But the South African population is very different from ours. It’s much younger, and most people there have already been infected with Covid-19. So the wave may look different there for reasons that aren’t related to the Omicron variant itself. We just don’t know yet, and we will have to see.
Omicron also has a shorter incubation period than earlier variants, which means that after you get exposed, you can show symptoms in as few as 3 to 4 days, rather than the 4 to 7 it took with earlier strains. Scientists aren’t quite sure why this is, but it may have something to do with the fact that Omicron can more easily and quickly attach to and invade our body’s cells.
This difference has implications for testing, because it means that a person can go from totally healthy to sick and contagious in the span of a day or even a few hours. It means that, before a social gathering, if you have access to rapid tests, you should test right before the gathering, and not a day or even a few hours before.
One other note about testing: When you’re vaccinated, your immune system is primed to respond quickly to the virus, so you may develop symptoms quickly — a day or two before you test positive on a rapid or PCR test. This means that if you have Covid symptoms, and you take a test and it comes back negative, you should not assume you don’t have Covid-19. Ideally, test again over the next couple of days.
Now, let’s talk about the ways things haven’t changed. For the most part, Omicron symptoms are similar to those of Delta. For a story that went up today in The New York Times, I interviewed a handful of doctors who are treating Omicron patients now, and they say that people who get Omicron breakthrough infections typically have bad cold symptoms — they complain of a sore or scratchy throat, headache, body aches, nasal congestion and cough. It’s unclear whether loss of taste and smell might be less common with Omicron, but that’s possible. Among unvaccinated people, the symptoms of Omicron are similar to the symptoms of the original coronavirus, with people complaining of shortness of breath, a bad cough, and fatigue.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is that Covid tests do pick up Omicron (although here are a few exceptions highlighted by the FDA). If you’re tested, you won’t know which variant you have, but state and local labs do keep track of this through additional analyses.
So what does all of this mean for how you should live your life? There are so many more questions than answers right now. One thing I can unequivocally say: Get your booster if you haven’t yet, and get your kids vaccinated if they are eligible. Avoid indoor crowds to the degree that you can.
We’re hoping to travel by plane later this week to spend Christmas with my parents, and here’s what we’re doing to minimize our risk of getting Omicron before, during and after we fly. A caveat: Much of what we’re doing costs money and requires extra effort, and I know many families aren’t going to be able to do all this. But in the spirit of transparency, I thought I’d share our plan. (Don’t get me started on how mad I am, by the way, that home tests are not ample and free. Biden’s announcement today to make 500 million free rapid tests available to Americans is great, but it’s just scratching the surface.)
We will drive ourselves to the airport, to avoid contact with drivers who could unknowingly expose us. Right before leaving, we will give the entire family rapid tests. My parents will also take rapid tests.
We’ll eat in the car and not in the airport. (Of course, if our plane is delayed, this plan could quickly get derailed.)
We have N95 masks for the airport and airplane (and honestly, I’m using these whenever I go anywhere now). Here’s what we have — we like these because they’re comfortable and easier to breathe in than regular N95s, although the downside is that we all look like ducks — and here’s a link to other good options. If you don’t have N95s, KN95s, or KF94s, I recommend double masking with a surgical math underneath and a cloth mask on top, as long as you and your kids can breathe well.
We are going to avoid eating on the plane if we can, but we understand that our kids may need a snack. Honestly, given the science on airplane ventilation and risk, I’m less worried about them eating on the plane than eating in the airport.
We have to be driven from the airport to my parents’ house by a driver, but we have confirmed our driver is vaccinated, and we will ventilate by opening the car windows and wearing our masks.
To the degree that we can, we’ll take home rapid tests regularly during the visit. In an ideal world, we’d do them every day for everyone, but that may be prohibitively expensive (not to mention, it could be hard to get our hands on that many tests).
When visiting my parents, we will not dine indoors at restaurants or attend indoor social gatherings with anyone but our immediate family (the four of us, plus my parents). We will avoid crowded indoor public spaces.
What are you doing to stay safe? And what questions do you have about Omicron? I’ll do my best to answer them here or on Instagram over the coming weeks.
Friday’s newsletter on how kids think about Santa was wildly popular. As a special holiday gift to my dedicated subscribers, I’ve just removed the paywall so that everyone can now read the entire Q&A — and free subscribers can see what kinds of special content paid subscribers get access to. If you are enjoying my free newsletter, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. My newsletter is entirely reader-supported. I can’t do this without your help!
I just heard that my book HOW TO RAISE KIDS WHO AREN’T ASSHOLES was the #2 bestselling book this year at my local independent bookstore, Split Rock Books. I’m so thrilled! Read about and buy my book here! And don’t forget that you can also book me to speak about my book or the science of parenting.
I’m going to take a holiday break from my newsletter next week. I hope all of you get some time off, too, and that you can find a way to relax among all the chaos and stress. Happy holidays!