Rettke: All I want for Christmas is for us to take omicron seriously

Here we are again, another holiday season, another time to ponder over our own risk versus everyone else’s amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More coronavirus is what we’re all getting for Christmas.

I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly not what I wanted.

The current wave is due to a rapidly spreading new virus variant, and (more so) a crisis of community responsibility. It’s a preventable backslide in our progress that threatens collapse of an overburdened healthcare system, economic fallout and loss of life. There is more than just viral spread and death at stake anymore.

Last week, staff at Northwestern Medicine hospitals told us while hospitalization numbers are holding for now, capacity is reaching last year’s winter surge numbers. You remember last year, right? When we didn’t have a vaccine and were reporting record case numbers, deaths and outbreaks in nearly a dozen longterm care facilities, homes to some of our most vulnerable?

The difference this time around is two-fold: The threat of what seems to be the fastest-spreading variant yet, and a health care response that is understaffed, overworked and pleading for us to do our part.

If hospitals are overrun, it impacts everyone: Not just COVID-19 patients, but anyone seeking medical care, emergency services, ICU beds, and the burned out healthcare professionals tasked with care.

It’s too early to say for certain how severe infection from the omicron variant of COVID-19 might be, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If trends play out how they’re expected, it’s going to be a tough winter.

There doesn’t seem to be a push for government mandates or shutdown mitigations this winter wave, as Dr. Ngozi Ezike of the Illinois Department of Public Health said Friday. That means the responsibility to stop this surge falls on us. Individual choices. Human decency. Logic.

The vaccine remains the strongest tool we have to prevent severe cases of the coronavirus, even omicron, as early data shows, according to the CDC. Earlier this month, Pfizer-BioNTech announced its booster dose had tested favorably to thwart the omicron variant. On Monday, Moderna announced the same.

More vaccines means fewer cases and fewer chances of people requiring emergency care in hospitals.

More cases means more chances of hospitals being overrun, school children in quarantine, events canceled and businesses disrupted.

This is the context we should all be thinking about as the holidays arrive.

Unlike 2020, this year we have a little more to help inform our decisions to gather: Are you vaccinated? What about boosted? Do you have children younger than 5 in your family who can’t yet get a vaccine? Where have you been the past two weeks and did you wear a mask? Is your indoor Christmas party going to include a large group of people? Do you know how many are vaccinated, or what level of risk they take in their everyday lives?

Have you been tested? A PCR test or a rapid antigen test, and what was the timing of the test in relation to being exposed or the onset of any symptoms that popped up? Do you feel ill, or like you have a bad cold? Do you know for sure it’s just a cold?

These are all questions we should be considering.

Maura O’Toole, president of Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb and Valley West in Sandwich, told Daily Chronicle reporter Katie Finlon last week it’s not uncommon for both hospitals to be at their busiest in December, even outside of pandemic times.

An already busy December could be strained, however, by an increase in COVID-19 related hospitalizations.

Severe cases of COVID-19 are preventable. Mass hospitalization caused by COVID-19 is preventable. Death from COVID-19 is preventable for so many, with a safe, effective and free vaccine that’s been available for a year.

Fewer than 55% of DeKalb County is fully vaccinated. Since the pandemic began, about 15,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the county. The CDC reports 433 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in the county as of Monday, and 20 new hospital admissions.

Our weekly case rates are approaching levels of the surge we saw last year. That was without omicron or delta, or a vaccine.

The playing field for COVID-19 infection is no longer as even as it was last year.

There are those who are vaccinated and boosted, those who are vaccinated and not boosted, the unvaccinated who’ve contracted and survived the disease, and those who aren’t vaccinated and haven’t been infected, meaning they’ve developed no immune response to fight the virus.

We have to remember our choices, such as masking when indoors and around other people, limiting how we gather and with whom, and staying home and getting tested if we’ve been exposed or are feeling ill. These are all steps we should be taking regardless of vaccination status.

This is not just about prevention of disease spread anymore. This is about the secondary, deep impact of mass illness on a scale that disrupts the balance of our health care systems, local and otherwise.

You can schedule a vaccine appointment or walk in for one almost anywhere these days, CVS, Walgreens, grocery stores, the health department. It’s free and easy to obtain.

If you are unvaccinated but you’ve had the virus, there’s nothing to suggest you can’t become reinfected, according to the CDC.

I hope this holiday season, we all consider these scenarios. All that any of us can hope is that we use common sense and be a little selfless for the greater good.

As we’ve known since the vaccine arrived to shine light at the end of the tunnel last year, that choice remains with you.

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.