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Minnesotans face off with omicron in their own way

26December 2021

As the omicron variant explodes across the country, some Minnesotans are doubling down to keep it at bay while others are paying it no mind.

Together, however, they sound a collective refrain: “Here we go again.”

For nearly two years, the global pandemic has sent successive waves of fear, dread, hope and more dread.

“It’s like being on a nonstop roller coaster,” said Wayne Peterson, who lost two brothers to COVID-19 in 2020. “It was a tough year.”

For many, the emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant means masks are going back on, indoor restaurant dining and big social gatherings are off and a return to work is being delayed. Even so, there’s comfort that 2021 is not 2020.

The biggest game-changer is that vaccines and boosters provide a line of defense against serious illness and death. Meanwhile, there’s more information about the virus, more access to testing that allows people to gather more safely and better treatments for COVID-19.

“This year is better,” said Peterson, of Eugene, Ore., after landing last week at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to attend an annual holiday gathering with friends and family. This year, he is vaccinated and boosted.

“All you can do is be smart and do the best you can,” he said. “There’s always something that will challenge us.”

For many who have diligently heeded public health warnings and advice throughout the pandemic, the new variant means staying wedded to those guidelines. Get vaccinated and a booster shot when needed, get tested before going to gatherings even if you have no symptoms, stay home if you’re sick, and wear a mask in public places.

It’s just more of the same, said University of Virginia swimmer Abby Kapeller, who was in Minnesota to spend the holidays with her family in Excelsior.

“As athletes, we’re more cautious,” she said. “If you get COVID, the whole team shuts down. So, while I’m home, I won’t see friends who aren’t vaccinated. I don’t want to bring COVID to my team.

“It just feels like it never stops,” she added.

Even with omicron on the rise, fear about it may be tempered because millions of people are vaccinated and the new variant appears less severe, said Eric Jiang, who was among those wearing masks last week at the Mall of America.

In comparison, the delta variant drove steep increases in infection, hospitalization and death across the country throughout the summer and fall.

“We’re not as scared as we were last year when more was unknown about the virus and treatment,” Jiang said. “There is a lot of tiredness about it all. So maybe we’re underreacting to the latest variant. It’s just that we’ve had this for so long and nothing has happened to me.”

Still, he’s cognizant that the virus is a formidable force, sickening healthy and fit people, such as world-class athletes who barely survived COVID. And it’s unknown what the long-term effects of the disease will be.

“But I definitely feel more comfortable living with it,” Jiang said.

For some who are unvaccinated, the latest variant is not a game-changer.

“I live a healthy life, and my body can take care of itself,” said Robyn Joel, who was at the airport to pick up her sister for the family gathering in Albert Lea.

“Whether it’s delta or omicron, I live life as normal as possible” wearing a mask only when it’s mandated, she said. “I’m not too worried.”

Jean Cooper of Minot, N.D., also isn’t letting the new variant curtail her activities or push her to get vaccinated.

“Yes, I believe the virus is real. And yes, I believe it’s killing thousands of people,” she said. “I’m leery about the vaccine. Or, maybe I’m just stubborn and don’t want to be told what to do. I figure I’ll take my chances.”

But Bob Alberti of Minneapolis is worried and frustrated with those who refuse to be vaccinated.

“There’s no reason this pandemic has to continue as long as it is except for the people who are dragging their feet,” he said.

Some shrug off omicron because it appears to be less deadly, Alberti said.

“That’s splitting hairs,” he said. “If we’re complacent and it mutates again, maybe the next variant will be worse.”

He’s doing his part to stop the cycle. He’s vaccinated and boosted, but knows if he gets COVID and is asymptomatic, he could unknowingly expose his 85-year-old mother or 1-month-old grandniece to the virus. So, he’ll again skip family holiday gatherings.

Marci Pope has resumed wearing her mask. The former Minneapolis resident, who now lives in Eden Valley, Minn., felt she was among the few who masked up in the small, rural town.

“I stopped wearing it for a while to fit in better,” Pope said. “But with this new variant, I put the mask back on, and I don’t care if people look at me funny.”

Pope, recovering from her spin on an amusement ride at the Mall of America with her 6-year-old granddaughter and 7-year-old grandson, was amazed and disappointed by the number of people who weren’t wearing masks at the mall despite signs that recommended everyone wear one.

“I was a little wary about coming out with the new variant circulating,” she said.

But she and her two grandchildren are vaccinated, and her grandkids were restless after being cooped up at home for a week.

“They needed to get out,” she said.

Like others who are calculating risks amid omicron, Connor Cox, stood in the airport baggage claim area as he calmed his 3-month-old son. Last year, COVID kept him and his wife from traveling from Philadelphia to Minnesota to see family.

This year, they’ll do what they can to minimize risks.

“There will be no going to restaurants. No large public gatherings,” he said. “It will just be small family gatherings with six to eight vaccinated people.”

Likewise, Dr. Beth Thielen, an adult and pediatrics infectious disease physician at M Health Fairview and the University of Minnesota Medical School, said she and her family will adjust rather than cancel their family get-together.

“We’re testing in advance of the gathering. Everyone is vaccinated and boosted, and we’re keeping the gathering small,” she said. “But we’re still planning to gather indoors. Everyone is comfortable with doing the best we can to mitigate risk.”

People should feel empowered that we have these tools, Thielen said.

“We’re in a very different place than we were a year ago.”

Yet, she’s still concerned the omicron variant is coming on the heels of delta, which overwhelmed Minnesota hospitals.

“I really worry about superimposing more hospitalizations from omicron on an already taxed health care system that could make a tough situation even worse.

“We’re bracing for a surge,” she said. “We’re worried it will happen but hope it doesn’t.”

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