Back about a year ago – before the Delta variant, but long after we had a firm grasp on exactly how dangerous Covid was (or wasn’t, depending on your perspective) – I made the point that we had to stop blindly relying on, touting and hyping up individual positive Covid cases and blanket positive test numbers.
In short, I made the argument that we needed to loosen our grip from hanging on individual positive tests being reported one at a time by the news. The brain damage and hysteria being drummed up from reporting one positive case at a time far outweighed the actual damage Covid was doing, in my opinion.
If you remember correctly, back in 2020 and even in early 2021, any time a person of prominence, like an athlete, politician or celebrity tested positive, it was immediately an enormous headline that would cause the nation to collectively gasp.
This wasn’t rational during the first variant of Covid, it remained irrational during the Delta variant, and is on the verge of just crazy-making now that the Omicron variant is here.
The truth of the matter is that individual cases as news headlines only serve to create headlines and whip people up into a hysteria.
For example – and I’m not trying to be mean here – but who even is this person, and why is this a lede on People.com?
While the media loves singling famous people out or touting the absolute number of positive tests in a given location, it often fails to report any context.
For example, reports about positive tests often do not include how many of the positive tests resulted in hospitalizations, how many of the positive tests even had symptoms and nuances like how many of the positive tests could be attributable to false positives.
Why is this context extremely important when reporting about the Omicron variant?
- Studies are showing that Omicron is far less likely to land people in the hospital, with a trio of studies out of Scotland showing that Omicron was associated with a 2/3rd’s lower risk of hospitalization than the Delta variant. Loosely speaking, the Delta variant has been found to increase chances of hospitalization by up to 2x from the original disease. Using this loose math, this would mean that Omicron is about 30% less likely than the original variant to land you in the hospital.
- A new meta analysis of asymptomatic cases published in JAMA this month continues to show that about 45% of all combined cases between the U.S. and Europe are asymptomatic. This number drops to 40.5% when you include the entire geographical pool of Covid tests. This suggests that almost half of all “positive” cases may not be negatively affecting someone’s quality of life.
- PCR testing is notoriously sensitive. Someone close to me who follows CDC protocol, is vaxxed, boosted and routinely double masks said to me this week: “All these positive tests out of nowhere. It’s almost like it isn’t real.”
While I’m not saying it “isn’t real”, what I am suggesting is that scratching below the surface about how PCR testing works might be a good idea before becoming hysterical about numbers the media presents.
For example, CDC Director Rachel Walensky said this month that PCR tests may come back positive up to 12 weeks after someone has Covid.
Back in 2020, health experts were saying PCR testing would pick up on “barely any traces” of the virus and that up to 90% of people who tested positive may not be carrying enough of the virus to infect someone else.
“PCR’s greater accuracy detects viral load far below this level, and thus incorrectly identifies many individuals as infectious when they are not,” an Arizona State University writeup on testing accuracy from October 2020 added.
- False positives are still a thing. As demonstrated on national television this year when Ana Navarro had to be ushered off the set of The View, prevalence of false positives can range from 0% to 16%, or even higher, depending on which sources and studies you cite for your information. These estimates are statistically significant enough to warrant redundancy in all testing. When a second test isn’t issued for a “positive” result, the confidence in the reliability of the test diminishes ever so slightly. Combined with the above three points, it’s worth noting for context when reading Omicron positive testing headlines.
Here’s a great example of the media at work from this summer, wherein CNN reports about an Olympic athlete who tested positive for Covid-19. CNN’s original source, a Tweet from an official Olympic body, offers slightly more context than CNN’s lede. No further information, such as whether or not the athlete even had symptoms or whether or not they were retested again that day to account for potential false positives, was given.
And hey – I’m not suggesting that you should ignore case number trends in your specific jurisdiction and that you don’t take precautions. All I’m suggesting is there is a lot more behind the positive Covid test case numbers than people take the time to see.
That, I believe, is because the media is satisfied using these numbers in the most sensational way possible and the public is largely uninformed and scared. The media I can place blame on for knowing better; the public, which largely consists of good hearted people just trying to do the right thing, I have more sympathy for.
So let’s look at what’s happening this New Year’s Eve. People are being told to stay home and not enjoy themselves because a new variant of Covid is “sweeping the globe”. Case numbers are being reported in record sums, with terms like “unprecedented”, “unlike anything we’ve ever seen” and “shattered records” being thrown around:
Holy fuck! Surely this is caused for severe alarm, right? Forget your vaccines that we once promised in a smug tone of voice would protect you from ever getting the virus again, Covid is back with a vengeance, motherfuckers!
But seriously, let’s just calm down. We already know Omicron is more transmissible than other variants by an order of magnitude, so let’s stop acting surprised. We also know that millions upon millions of Americans have already prompted their immune systems with vaccines and booster shots, so let’s stop acting worried that the virus is once again “surprising” us.
All month I’ve been watching athletes and coaches from various sports testing “positive” – resulting in sports games being canceled and hundreds of millions of dollars in associated revenue being put at risk.
In addition to the economic loss “positive” tests immediately create, many of players and coaches who have been reporting to practice and feeling fine are claiming that testing protocols are taking a mental toll on them.
Take, for example, French tennis player Benoit Paire:
French tennis player Benoit Paire has tested positive for COVID-19 just weeks before the Australian Open gets underway on Jan. 17, 2022.
“Hey my name is Benoit Paire, and for the 250th time I tested positive for Covid!!” he said on Twitter.“Honestly I can’t deal with this Covid s*** anymore.”
“How am I doing? Because of Covid, I got a runny nose but because of all these quarantines spent in a hotel room halfway across the world, I don’t feel good mentally,” he continued.
Paire, who is vaccinated, added that he is “100 percent for the vaccine,” but urged people to “just live as before Covid, otherwise, I don’t see the point.”
Do you know the old expression: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Maybe we should be asking: “If 350 million people report ‘positive’ tests but no one cares anymore, do we really need such stringent Covid protocols?”
I know that sounds crass, but how many of the players and coaches do you think would be simply going about their business but for some super-sensitive PCR test turning up trace amounts of the virus? How many players don’t care at this point? How many of the tens of thousands of fans that wind up in the stadium cheering along these teams care at this point?
The counter intuitive nature of our Covid testing is on full display in the world of sports. If we are to test in this fashion going forward, no team in any sport may ever field a starting lineup again.
I mean, honestly – imagine testing everybody for trace amounts of the cold virus before every sporting event in every major sporting league. Nothing would ever get done and the leagues would fold due to inefficiency and loss of interest from fans.
If you take the same fallacy and apply it to everyday life and everywhere that requires Covid testing, including places of business who mandate it, one really starts to get a look at the giant wrench that can be thrown back (George Gammon voice) into the gears of both the economy and people’s everyday lives.
Omicron cases are surging. We know. It’s a cause for concern. People will take precautions that they deem necessary for themselves and for others. However, inciting hysteria based on total number of cases at this point, given the new variant’s properties and what we know about testing, might be the most counterintuitive and irrational decision in responding to the virus yet.
And that’s saying something, because there’s been a lot of them.