Josh Freed: Latest COVID variant means another cautious Christmas

Welcome to another holiday season when we must isolate, not congregate; another No-el with no-bars, no-shows and no-parties.

Montreal Gazette 5 minute read December 24, 2021

Despite the renewed Yuletide anxiety, the mood in the city is better than during last year’s Lockdown Christmas. Now that we’re mostly double or triple vaxxed, Montrealers are feeling somewhat safer, Josh Freed writes. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

It’s beginning to look a lot like last Christmas.

Welcome to another holiday season when we must isolate, not congregate; another No-el with no-bars, no-shows and no-parties.

But on Dec. 31, at least you can sit in a restaurant till 10 p.m. (for now) and shout “Happy New Year!” — two hours early.

It will be another cautious Christmas. At reduced family gatherings, instead of the host offering you an egg nog at the door he’ll hand you a COVID 20-minute home test to take before you’re allowed in.

“Oops! Mom just tested positive! Everyone back off six feet and seal her in the bedroom.”

The killjoy this Christmas is COVID’s latest viral update: the superspreader variant called Omicron.

Many of us aren’t even sure how to pronounce it, with common “variants” ranging from OHmicron to OMicron, OMYcron and Omnicron, because it’s omnipresent (that’s President Biden’s version).

The variant has also spawned several other new words, to boost our growing COV-ocabulary, adding to earlier COVID words and phrases like “social distancing”, “flatten the curve” and “asymptomatic.”

In the last week, many of us sound like amateur doctors, casually using sentences like: “I hear PCR molecular tests are 99 per cent accurate at spotting mutations in RNA, while antigen tests mainly detect nucleocapsid (N) protein. … Or is it vice versa?”

Quebec once again leads Canada in most daily new cases, which is strange given we’re among the most vaccinated in Canada and probably North America. So why us?

I suspect it’s because we’re also Canada’s best minglers, most likely to crowd into parties, clubs and restaurants to share joy and germs.

If our vaccines get us through Omicron safely, there are already rumours about newly emerging variants called “Megatron” and “Parmesan” — an Italian variant spread through pasta.

Also concerning is that the word Omicron has already used up the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet. If many more variants appear, we may have to switch to Roman numerals, with names like COVID XXXXXXVIIII.

Another new wrinkle is that since we started mingling indoors again in the fall, cold season is back with a fury. With more than 9,000 COVID cases a day, and more than 90,000 colds, it’s hard to know who has what.

I had a cold several weeks ago and tested negative. But now I have a chronic winter cough and sniffles, so every time I display either, everyone nearby backs away like I was a suicide bomber.

Someone should turn out T-shirts that say, “I tested negative. It’s just a cold.”

As cold season continues, will we have to get tested every time we wake up with a sneeze? If so, we may need six billion home tests, not six million.

The good news is that so far Omicron looks like a “Corona lite” virus with considerably less chance of seeing you hospitalized, according to recent British and other studies. But it spreads much faster.

In New York, it’s already so prevalent one headline this week asked if there was anyone in the city who didn’t have Omicron.

I know too many Montrealers who have caught COVID this past week, every place from at a women’s’ poker night to a guys’ hockey league. But all were fully vaccinated and none have serious, if any, symptoms so far.

But even if Omicron proves less dangerous than its previous COVID cousins, it’s a danger to our hospitals. If two million Montrealers get COVID lite, even a minuscule per cent being hospitalized could overwhelm exhausted health-care staff.

Just getting tested for COVID is already challenging. Thousands of us have lined up for free self-testing kits at drugstores that ran out almost immediately.

On Tuesday, outdoor lineups were so long, Jean Coutu posted an online message, warning “Your estimated wait time is more than 15 hours.”

Despite the renewed Yuletide anxiety, the mood in town is better than during last year’s Lockdown Christmas. Now that we’re mostly double or triple vaxxed, we’re feeling somewhat safer.

Most people are only keeping a three-foot berth from others on sidewalks, as opposed to last year’s eight feet — and almost no one’s quarantining their mail.

Many are also going ahead with travel plans, unlike last year, though it’s worth considering the possible downside.

People I know were in Europe recently and unexpectedly tested positive just before coming home. Both had to cancel their flight and remain there quarantined, till testing negative.

One never showed symptoms, but tested positive for more than 10 days, while spending $1,000 on tests, plus hotel costs and flight. So if you’re travelling, make sure you have an extra 10 days and plenty of extra cash.

The best imaginable scenario is that Omicron proves mild or harmless to most people, but eventually spreads to replace other deadlier COVID variants, as apparently helped end the Spanish flu.

That’s probably wishful thinking, but on our second COVID Christmas, we’re due for some wishes to come true.

Happy holidays all. Stay positive, test negative! And if you’ve got a cold, don’t cough.

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