I turn 40 today, and I was planning to have a party. The Delta surge made me nervous about it. The arrival of Omicron made me cancel it.
The plan was to have an extended house party, with a couple dozen people popping by over the weekend. On the one hand, it would have been an unmasked, indoor event—the kind in which the coronavirus, in all its incarnations, spreads most easily. On the other hand, everyone who was going to be there is fully vaccinated, and most of them, myself included, have been boosted. A month ago, I would have felt comfortable about that trade-off, especially if people got tested in the preceding days, as eight friends did when they came over for Thanksgiving.
Omicron didn’t much shift the way I weighed my personal risk. Although the new variant can evade some of our immune defenses, early data suggest that boosted people are roughly as protected against Omicron infection as people with two vaccine doses are against Delta. That protection isn’t foolproof, but even if immune systems can’t block the virus from gaining an initial foothold, they should still be able to stop it from causing too much damage. If I got the virus on my birthday, I’d expect to be knocked down for a time but okay by Christmas—and I’d expect the same to be true for everyone who was meant to come.
I don’t know the odds that this would happen. But I know that said odds are rising with every passing day, given how quickly and easily Omicron is spreading, even among highly vaccinated populations. I know that many of my friends, like many vaccinated Americans, have been going out to restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters. I know that Omicron’s incubation period—the gap between infection and symptoms—seems unusually short, so that even people who tested negative a few days ago might still be infected and infectious. I know that even mild infections can lead to long COVID.
If someone got sick, I know others could too. A week later, many of my friends will spend Christmas with their own families. At best, a cluster of infections at the birthday party would derail those plans, creating days of anxious quarantine or isolation, and forcing the people I love to spend time away from their loved ones. At worst, people might unknowingly carry the virus to their respective families, which might include elderly, immunocompromised, unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or otherwise vulnerable people. Being born eight days before Christmas creates almost the perfect conditions for one potential super-spreader event to set off many more.
My friends, of course, are adults who can make informed decisions about their own risks and their own loved ones’ risks. But the logic of personal responsibility goes only so far. Omicron is spreading so rapidly that if someone got infected at my party, my decision to host it could easily affect people who don’t know me, and who had no say in the risks that I unwittingly imposed upon them. Omicron is unlikely to land me in the hospital, but it could send my guests’ grandparents or parents to one.
I also know the state of those hospitals. Over the past two years, especially while I was reporting a new article last month, hundreds of nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers have told me that they, and the system they work in, are utterly broken. Some have quit jobs or careers that they thought they would keep for life. Others spoke of a system in the midst of collapse, in which the dwindling workforce can no longer provide a normal level of care for its growing pool of patients—not just COVID patients, but all patients. Several said that they’re struggling to hold on to empathy for people who are putting themselves at risk. Many cried on the phone during our interview. Many just sounded hollow.
I feel haunted by their words when I make decisions about the pandemic. When I stare out my window, the world looks normal, but I know through my reporting that it is not. This has already changed the way I behave, and not just to avoid getting COVID. I’ve been trying to drive more carefully, in the knowledge that if I got into an accident, I wouldn’t get the same care that I would have two years ago. I feel that the medical system in this country is at a tipping point—a fragile vase balanced so precariously on an edge that even a fly could knock it over. Omicron is a bullet. It’s one that we can each choose whether to fire.
For many people, this will all sound like a lot of melodrama. Surely the odds are still low that anyone at the party would have Omicron at all, let alone that any resulting infections would be severe enough to bother a hospital? Even if that wasn’t true, with people widely partying and traveling, surely canceling any one event would be an impossibly small drop in an impossibly large bucket?
I sympathize with those arguments. But I’ve tried to take to heart the lesson I keep writing about—that the pandemic is a collective problem that cannot be solved if people (or governments) act in their own self-interest. I’ve tried to consider how my actions cascade to affect those with less privilege, immune or otherwise. Instead of asking “What’s my risk?,” I’ve tried to ask “What’s my contribution to everyone’s risk?” I’ve done things that personally inconvenience me to avoid contributing to the much greater societal inconvenience of, say, a collapsed health-care system. I still mask indoors. I still eat outdoors at restaurants. I still avoid large gatherings. I’m still writing articles that take a toll on my own resilience, to help our readers make sense of a crisis that I desperately want to never think about again. I’ve tried to put we over me.
A birthday party is almost the antithesis of that ethic—an asymmetric gathering in which we celebrate me. I talked with my wife, Liz, and two of my colleagues about ways of mitigating the risks—could we ask people to do a rapid test just before coming?—but, ultimately, simply canceling felt easier and safer. The growing number of anecdotes about outbreaks within boosted parties has only made me feel more confident about that choice. These decisions are hard. Plans and hopes have their own inertia, and canceling things is a pain. A birthday party isn’t ultimately a big deal, but I’m still sad about not seeing my friends, and a celebration would certainly have improved my fraying mental health. Those trade-offs, which we’ve been asked to make now for almost two years, have an erosive power as they add up.
Our Christmas will also be quiet. I don’t know how to think about everyone else’s. For two straight years, America’s leaders have largely punted the responsibility for controlling the pandemic to individuals, and now Omicron leaves said people with few options beyond boosting, masking, and—the one nobody wants to hear—avoiding social gatherings. If people really hunker down over the next week, eschewing the kinds of exposures that they would have felt comfortable with a mere month ago, they might be in a more secure position to gather by Christmas. But as my colleague Ian Bogost has written, to have to wrangle with these choices again, just as the holiday season begins, feels like a cruel joke.
It is easy to despair, but we cannot afford the luxury of nihilism. Grim though the stories I’ve written may be, I have tried to infuse every one with some hope—with the acknowledgment that a better future is at least possible, if not probable. And despite everything, I firmly believe that it is. Failed systems constrain us, but we still have agency, and our small choices matter immensely. The infectious nature of a virus means that a tiny bad decision can cause exponential harm, but also that a tiny wise decision can do exponential good.
This time last year, with effective vaccines and a new administration on the horizon, I tweeted that I was “gently hopeful about being able to have a party.” That wasn’t to be. But canceling doesn’t mean that I can’t have a joyful weekend, or that I can’t have a party again, or even a 40th-birthday party again. I can imagine reviving the idea if transmission falls back to a gentle simmer. The cost of waiting for such a moment feels low, and certainly much lower than the consequences of reckless impatience. And I know, despite the relentless nature of the past two years, that pandemics do eventually end.
I turn 40 a year today, and I’m gently hopeful about being able to have a party by then.— Ed Yong (@edyong209) December 17, 2020