A cruise ship. Credit: Faria Anzum / Unsplash

Full disclosure: I am writing this column while on a transatlantic cruise. There are no newspapers onboard and wifi is sporadic. This makes following the news about the Omicron variant sporadic at best and difficult at worst.

The situation leads me to wonder whether the challenges of finding out the latest news are, in fact, a blessing in disguise. The news that filters to the top seems to say:

  • Omicron, a variant of concern according to the WHO, is at least as contagious as the delta variant, unless it isn’t.
  • Omicron is not as severe as the delta variant, or perhaps it is even more so.
  • Current vaccines and anti-COVID medications will be effective against the Omicron variant, or they won’t.

In short, we don’t know what we don’t know. And even the scientist who discovered Omicron has cautioned the scientific world to relax and stop worrying, for this very reason.

This is not to say that we should disregard the value of being fully vaccinated, adding a third shot for most adults, with younger and younger age groups added to the target vaccine population. Nor is it permission to stop wearing masks; in fact, health authorities are encouraging us to wear N95 masks, in order to better filter airborne contamination, now that this method of transmission is recognized.

Finally, the unknown considerations of Omicron should not be taken as license to ignore social distancing. In other words, we are being encouraged to keep on keeping on. Until we know more about Omicron, we should keep our guard up, rather than dropping it in frustration after so many months.

How does this work on a ship with over 600 passengers and some 400 crew and staff? As on many cruise ships, only fully vaccinated passengers are allowed onboard this one. They join fully vaccinated crew and staff.

Further, after showing proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of embarkation, everyone is required to have another PCR test every day. These are provided by the ship, in the form of saliva tests which are tested in an onboard laboratory. Passengers are also required to fill out a health form and to have a temperature check every day. Finally, everyone on board must wear a tag that facilitates contact tracing, should someone test positive.

For even greater safety, passengers, crew and staff all wear masks, except when eating or drinking. Masks can be removed outdoors, on deck, but must be available should others come too close.

Does everyone comply? The answer for passengers is no, although most make some attempt. But there are too many people who wear their masks below their noses, or whose masks are very loose. These same people often ignore the blocked seats in lounges, bars and restaurants. They sit where they want to sit. Crew and staff appear much better at following the pandemic guidelines.

There are passengers who question why these precautions are needed, if everyone had to be fully vaccinated and to show a negative PCR test to board. It’s a good question. The answer lies in timing and risk management.

Even negative PCR tests are time-sensitive. Just because you tested negative three days before joining the cruise, doesn’t mean you are not COVID positive. And once you are on-board, you still want to be protected from people you encounter when you disembark for touring the various ports.

Perhaps even more importantly, the cruise line does not want to take any chances. Were anyone to become COVID positive on-board, they would go into quarantine. But the damage to the cruise line’s reputation would be dramatic.

And so all aboard stumble around wearing face masks and tracing tags, after spitting and filling out a health questionnaire, en route to a temperature check. And of course, using the hand-sanitizing stations placed near stair rails, elevators and restaurant entrances. After a while, these precautions become second nature. And as we are all literally in the same boat as far as news is concerned, the daily headlines about Omicron and COVID in general decrease in importance.

Perhaps this is a good thing.

In an earlier column, I wrote about the Greek alphabet nomenclature adopted by WHO. A variant of concern, like Omicron, is more worrisome than a variant of interest. And a rating can change over time.

What are scientists around the world looking for as Omicron becomes more prevalent? They want data on the spread of the variant among the fully vaccinated, the partially vaccinated, those with third and/or booster shots and those unvaccinated. Researchers also collect information on the age of those affected by the variant and the incidence of comorbidity, or chronic health concerns, as well as whether those affected live alone, in family or other groupings, or in congregate living situations such as care facilities, dormitories and prisons.

These figures help establish the r-factor or replication number. In other words, how do the different populations pass along the virus? The goal is to have an r-factor of one or below. Anything higher than this means that the variant multiplies exponentially.

Research into the spread of Omicron has another important consideration. Do people who contract the variant become more or less sick than those whose blood work doesn’t exhibit the new variant? Does their sickness require hospitalization and how serious is their in-patient care? On the other hand, do vaccination status, age or other factors affect the likelihood of being asymptomatic, even when COVID-positive?

In some respects, making definitive statements about Omicron is like solving a Rubik’s cube. Each time one particular factor is discussed, it ignores others that could be equally, if not more important. It appears that the only thing certain about Omicron is that it is too early to be certain about all its ramifications. The variant is too new to have been studied closely enough over a long enough time.

The good news is that scientists from South Africa, where the variant was discovered, are sharing all the information they have. Scientists around the world can contribute to the initial knowledge base. The rest of us can help, by continuing to follow public health regulations, including being vaccinated, wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing. Even in the middle of the ocean.

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Evelyn Lazare

Evelyn H Lazare is a healthcare planner, strategist and executive. Lazare has led nation-wide healthcare organizations in Canada and has consulted to an array of healthcare and related clients in both...