You hoped that the Delta variant of COVID-19 would signal the end of our pandemic nightmare. But now Omicron infecting more people than Delta, South African scientists brought to the world’s attention around Thanksgiving, just as you were settling into being with family safely for the first time since COVID-19 began infecting and killing millions. On Wednesday, the first confirmed case in the United States was discovered in San Francisco. Another case discovered in Minnesota, in a patient who had not travelled internationally suggests that Omicron is already being transmitted domestically.
You’ve been here before, I’m sure. A “variant of concern” is declared in the flurry of headlines. As chyrons below them repeat the words “mutation” and “breakthrough,” the talking heads urge you not to panic. And, no, you shouldn’t let your emotions run wild because this isn’t a repeat of March 2020, when there were no effective vaccines and little understanding of how COVID-19 spread. The fear of the unknown, on the other hand, has the ability to knock you down.
This unexpected turn is understandably unsettling. There’s still some uncertainty about what Omicron means for your well-laid plans: the long-postponed wedding, getting back on a dating app, or returning to an office job. Just as you’d become acquainted, if not comfortable, with the stakes of Delta, new questions arise. How well do the vaccines fare against Omicron? Is it true that Omicron infects more people than Delta, which is already quite contagious? Is it true that omicron infections only cause minor symptoms?
You’d like to make decisions based on this data, but you can’t — at least not yet. According to the experts, they will learn more about Omicron infection in the coming weeks. They advise staying calm, getting vaccinated or boosted, and continuing to practice preventative measures such as masking indoors and testing before gathering. They are not mistaken. The rational response is to avoid spiralling. You’ve been here before, after all: The downward spiral into breathless anxiety isn’t good for you or anyone else you care about. However, the truth is that humans are terrible at dealing with uncertainty. They are enthralled by the prospect of knowing what will or is likely to occur next. You are not an exception.
As a result, you look for ways to cope. You could pretend, ignoring the virus’s threat because, like so many others, you’re exhausted by worry. You could allow your fear of the unknown to drive you to hyperactivity or deep depression. The first is a form of diversion. The second is frequently what happens when we feel constantly out of control.