Omicron's prevalence should shake off COVID-19's lingering stigma, experts say

·3 min read
People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test in Montreal on Thursday. Experts say that Omicron's contagiousness means everyone is likely to catch COVID-19 in the coming months, but restrictions are meant to slow its spread to avoid overloading health-care systems. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test in Montreal on Thursday. Experts say that Omicron's contagiousness means everyone is likely to catch COVID-19 in the coming months, but restrictions are meant to slow its spread to avoid overloading health-care systems. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Alexandra Floyd said her friends and co-workers were generally understanding when she called and texted them to say she had tested positive for COVID-19 — but still, she worried about being judged.

"I think there's definitely that stigma related to, 'Well, where were you? Who are you with the last couple of days? What did you do? Who are you around? Who did you expose?' " she told CBC News.

"I understand those questions need to be asked, for sure … but I definitely think that there is still that stigma related to … judging people and what they did."

The 29-year-old Toronto law clerk said that she was shocked that she contracted the virus and found it "ironic," given how careful she's been. She said she's double vaccinated.

Submitted by Alexandra Floyd
Submitted by Alexandra Floyd

Floyd believes she was exposed at a restaurant on Dec. 10, and started to feel symptoms, which she said were similar to a bad cold, on Dec. 14.

She happened to have a rapid test at home and tested positive the morning of Dec. 15. While waiting three days for the results of a PCR test — which confirmed she had COVID-19 and specifically the Omicron variant — Floyd contacted the friends and coworkers she'd seen the week before.

"It's just important to be compassionate because no matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, this is extremely contagious — especially Omicron — and it's really hard to judge."

Infectious diseases experts say she's right. The transmissibility of Omicron means that it can pass very easily, even to people who are vaccinated and have been trying to limit their contacts.

This newest variant is incredibly contagious, with one study suggesting that it multiplies in tissue samples of human bronchi, the tubes that carry air into the lungs, 70 times faster than the Delta variant or the original strain.

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Marcy Cuttler/CBC News
Marcy Cuttler/CBC News

Experts warn against blame for those who test positive

"You can try your darndest and there's still a very good chance that at some point along the next few months, you will get infected with this," Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious diseases specialist in Charlottetown, said in an interview.

The public health measures coming into force are meant to slow — not totally stop — Omicron's spread, he said, noting they will buy time for more people to get booster shots, and will hopefully spread hospitalizations out over many weeks, rather than concentrated in one surge.

Gardam said he's felt people's shame when they've called him to say they have COVID-19.

"I've been very clear telling them, 'Listen, this is par for the course. This is going to happen to all of us and you can't feel guilty. This is just what is going to happen at the end of this pandemic.' "

Other experts have been warning for months against blaming people who test positive.

In January, one regional medical officer of health in Nova Scotia told CBC's Maritime Noon he'd even seen patients delay getting tested because they were worried about what others would think.

'I will have this virus at some point'

Immunologist Dawn Bowdish, who teaches at McMaster University, agreed people should not blame themselves if they catch it.

"I have come to terms with the fact that I will have this virus at some point, being [an] expert and trying to do the very best things to protect myself," she said in an interview.

"But my hope is that with my three doses and by doing everything else that's appropriate, I can not get it yet, to save our health-care system right now."

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