Will we repeat the Christmas Covid wave?

EDIT at 7pm, same day as posting: You know you have good friends when someone quietly emails you and tells you that the news about Omicron just got much worse and you should probably edit your post. I’ve been trying to rationalized why this January will be better than last January. Of course if it were not for Omicron, I would expect very little from holiday gatherings among mostly-vaccinated Americans. However, having known Omicron was looming, I probably shouldn’t have even tried to speculate. Get your booster and be prepared to hunker down in January if the 2-3 week data indicates that infections are turning extra-lethal. </edit>

In keeping with the “dismal science” brand, let’s dwell on the horrible death toll of the January 2021 Covid wave in the US that followed the Christmas holiday. Here comes Christmas (and other winter holidays) again, a major public health event.


This graph I borrowed from CNBC shows how fast deaths spiked up after the winter holidays of 2020. See also https://data.cdc.gov/.

According to Google search auto-complete, the public is more interested in whether there will be another Christmas Prince movie than whether there will be another Christmas Covid death wave.

I think it’s unlikely that we will see a repeat of exactly what happened last year. I’ve been looking online for predictions and mostly I have found articles warning that Omicron will cause a some kind of wave. No one wants to commit to predicting how many people will die, because anyone who tries is sure to be wrong. The consensus is that breakthrough infections are likely but that vaccines protect against extreme illness.

Nearly a million Americans have died from Covid already (Jeremy argues for a million). Some of those deaths, in retrospect, can almost certainly be tied to family travel during the holidays in 2020. The January Covid wave has only happened once, so it’s impossible to predict what will happen this time. Unfortunately we may get an interaction from increased holiday travel plus a novel highly infectious variant.

The Omicron variant is spreading fast, but no one knows if it will be worse than we we are currently dealing with from Delta. It seems like triple-vaxxed people are not at high risk, from preliminary data. That is reassuring to me personally. Thank you South Africa for being fast and sharing data with the world. For communities with low vaccination rates, it seems certain that more deaths will result from fast-traveling Omicron. Yet, from my reading this week, it is hard to know if it’s really much worse than what they are currently experiencing from Delta.

I’m keeping a Twitter thread going of what other people are saying. Caleb Watney points out that we have two things going for us. Widely available vaccines keep people safer from infection and reduces the chance of needing medical treatment. Secondly, we have gotten better at treating the disease. Together, that should mean less deaths in January 2022, as long as people seek treatment quickly and hospital capacity does not become a limiting factor. Omicron could multiply cases so quickly that we can’t apply all our best treatments to everyone. That is the biggest reason to worry.

Even though people will be less cautious about winter holiday travel this year than they were last year, the country has been open for many months now, including the recent Thanksgiving holiday. The vulnerable population this time should be smaller, in terms of the people likely to die from Omicron.

To say that we won’t blindly exactly repeat the biggest mortality event of my lifetime is not “optimism”. It seems like this January will not be as bad as last January for the reason Watney states: better medical tech on hand, most importantly vaccines for prevention.

There could always be a surprise. Once again, we in the US have the opportunity to watch what happens to other countries a week or two before we have to consider lockdown measures. If the Omicron variant is significantly worse than the Delta version we currently are dealing with, we might know in time to do something about it. I wish we had evidence about Long Covid compared against all strains, but Omicron spreads so quickly that we would only be able to observe the short term effects.

As I was listening to the radio on the way to work yesterday, the DJ announced first that Chris Pratt and his wife are expecting their second baby (congrats) and then that the first Omicron case has been identified in our state Alabama. She calmly said that the best thing to do in response to this news is follow CDC recommendations: vaccines, masks indoors, and social distancing. I suppose by invoking the CDC she prevented the moment from feeling too personal or adversarial. Panicking too early about Omicron might create a backlash, so for now we collect more information and watch it spread to every state.

In Alabama, Walgreens is doing a great job with vaccine distribution and scheduling. I thank them for my booster.

Here is an NYT writer on how Trump voters are dying at much higher rates than Democrats, due partly to the vaccine gap. I don’t agree with this writer that it would be easy for a public figure on the right to convince anti-vaxxers to get shots. In a city near me, Trump was boo-ed at his own rally for suggesting that people get vaccinated. What is odd is that Trump voters aren’t lining up for shots to outlive the Democrats. What if Democrats are outliving them, just to vote in another election, just for spite? I’m joking, but I wonder if that talking point would gain any traction…

Here’s a thread on the middle ground that Emily Oster pointed to on Twitter. ‘Let’s stay watchful and make compromises’ does not make a good click bait headline, but it’s an approach worth considering.

2 thoughts on “Will we repeat the Christmas Covid wave?

  1. capitalistfirst December 18, 2021 / 8:07 am

    Of course. Vitamin D deficiency is a cofactor in getting COVID. Since we mostly get vitamin D from the sun, when the sun moves away during the winter, you are going to see more cases.

    Liked by 1 person

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