The Morning Jolt

Health Care

Potential Good News on the Omicron Front

A man is tested for the coronavirus at a mobile COVID-19 testing unit in Manhattan, N.Y., December 8, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

On the menu today: some potential good news, as early cases suggest that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 usually gives people only mild symptoms; scientists think they’ve found the link between the virus and the dangers of extra weight, which is an opportunity to lay out what the overweight among us do not want or need to hear; Alec Baldwin’s explanation for that fatal movie-set shooting doesn’t make much sense; and why you’ll want to tune in to today’s Three Martini Lunch podcast.

Is Omicron . . . Not That Scary after All?

It’s a little early to declare that the Biden administration, public-health authorities, and the media overreacted to the discovery of the Omicron variant. But the evidence is starting to pile up that Omicron might actually be what we would want — a super-contagious strain that only afflicts people with mild symptoms. Once people catch the virus and beat it off, their immune systems are well-trained to fight off a second run-in with the virus.

  • Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Associated Press that “the disease is mild” in almost all of the 40 detected Omicron cases seen so far, with reported symptoms including cough, congestion, and fatigue. One person was hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported, CDC officials said.
  • In South Africa, “the symptoms displayed by patients in Netcare’s hospitals in the epicenter of the current fourth wave, the province of Gauteng, ‘are far milder than anything we experienced during the first three waves,’ Chief Executive Officer Richard Friedland said in a statement Wednesday.”
  • At the World Health Organization: “Emerging data from South Africa suggests increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Wednesday, adding ‘there is also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta.’”
  • And from Dr. Fauci: “Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said Tuesday that the omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness — although he cautioned that the available data remains preliminary and anecdotal.”

As of December 3, the WHO had not seen any reports of any deaths from the Omicron variant. One South African hospital complex reported ten deaths in a two-week period out of 166 admissions. “Four deaths were in adults aged 26 — 36 and five (5) deaths were in adults over 60. One death was in a child in whom the cause of deaths was unrelated to Covid.” At least some of those adult Covid deaths are probably Omicron, considering the exponential spread of cases in South Africa, but that is not clear from the report.

Either way, the sudden sweeping travel restrictions and cancellations of elective surgeries seem like an overreaction, don’t they?

Way back in May 2020, I was quoting John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, considered one of the most authoritative histories of the 1918 influenza pandemic. In that book, Barry discusses how the continuing mutation of that epidemic’s spectacularly lethal virus ended up saving people:

But the 1918 virus, like all influenza viruses, like all viruses that form mutant swarms, mutated rapidly. There is a mathematical concept called “reversion to the mean”; this states simply that an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event. This is not a law, only a probability. The 1918 virus stood at an extreme; any mutations were more likely to make it less lethal than more lethal. In general, that is what happened. So just as it seemed that the virus would bring civilization to its knees, would do what the plagues of the Middle Ages had done, would remake the world, the virus mutated toward its mean, toward the behavior of most influenza viruses. As time went on, it became less lethal.

Also recall who was telling you, back on November 29, that the Mu and Lambda variants generated their share of ominous headlines . . . and then faded into footnotes in the history of the pandemic.

Credit goes to Oliver Darcy of CNN for recognizing that what we’re seeing right now from Omicron does not match the tone of the coverage of the new variant a few weeks ago:

The situation was portrayed as a five-alarm fire. Consuming even a tiny dose of the coverage — whether it was through television, the internet, or even a good old-fashioned newspaper — probably left a not insignificant part of the audience wondering whether the current vaccines would offer any protection at all against the variant.

“When the variant was identified basically nothing was known about the virus other than it contained dozens of mutations. There was no clinical or epidemiological data to provide any kind of context to the public,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner told me Wednesday, saying that he believes the press had “overhyped the peril” of Omicron. “Yet without any scientific foundation the public was warned that this variant could evade all our vaccines. As a consequence the stock market tanked and governments closed their borders. All of this without any data. . . . Now almost two weeks out, thing look less dire.”

News coverage about Covid-19 variants runs the risk of turning into the boy who cried “Wolf!”

As If This Virus Weren’t Bad Enough

But also this morning, not all the news about Covid-19 is good. Researchers contend they have confirmed something that seemed likely, once the virus proved particularly dangerous to those with diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, obesity, etc: Covid-19 is more likely to kill you if you’re overweight:

Now researchers have found that the coronavirus infects both fat cells and certain immune cells within body fat, prompting a damaging defensive response in the body.

“The bottom line is, ‘Oh my god, indeed, the virus can infect fat cells directly,’” said Dr. Philipp Scherer, a scientist who studies fat cells at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who was not involved in the research.

“Whatever happens in fat doesn’t stay in fat,” he added. “It affects the neighboring tissues as well.”

The research has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, but it was posted online in October. If the findings hold up, they may shed light not just on why patients with excess pounds are vulnerable to the virus, but also on why certain younger adults with no other risks become so ill.

Now, on behalf of everyone who is overweight . . . we know. We know it’s unhealthy. We know we should lose some more pounds. We know we should eat more salads and protein and way fewer carbohydrates and make desserts a rare treat. We know we should exercise more and combine cardio training and weight training. A lot of us are working on it. If losing the weight were easy, we would have done it by now. A lot of us have found that once we make progress, our bodies think we’re undernourished and slow down our metabolisms, making it hard to keep the weight off. Rest assured, we know you care. Please don’t remind us that we need to lose weight, thinking that you’re doing something nice and caring, but it ultimately just reminds us of the part of us that embarrasses us the most. We already know that certain people look at our bellies and extra chins and think we have no willpower or impulse control. Yes, I know you’re convinced you’re doing this out of love, but telling us that we need to lose weight — something the vast majority of us are absolutely aware of and can never forget because we’re in these bodies — rarely makes us feel loved. It usually makes us feel judged and mortified instead. Everyone can already see the problem; do we need to talk about it out loud?

Please don’t tell us about how you lost 15 pounds by drinking carrot juice or only eating rutabaga for a week or by eliminating foods that start with “B” or whatever. Everybody’s body is different, and what worked for one person may not work for another.

This isn’t a call for “fat acceptance”; the only “body positivity” I’m offering is that I’m positive it is difficult to have the body you want. This is just a recognition that we’re human beings who evolved to hunt and gather on the savannah, who almost never encountered a carbohydrate in nature, and who now live in a civilized society with desks and cubicles and cars and ubiquitous processed carbohydrates and why the hell are there a million pizza, ice-cream, beer, and fast-food commercials when I’m trying to diet?!? We just got through the season of latkes, and now we’re deep into the season of gingerbread, peppermint, hot cocoa, and cookies for Santa. It is not easy to avoid being fat in our society, and it is not easy to lose the extra weight once you put it on.

The long-term consequences of being overweight were motivation enough to shed some pounds, even before Covid-19.

For the Millionth Time, Always Treat Every Gun as If It Is Loaded!

There’s limited “nutritional value” in the news reports about the fate of Alec Baldwin; either he’s going to be charged with a crime for the shooting on the set of the movie Rust, or he won’t. But when Baldwin declared, in his ABC News interview, that the gun fired without his pulling the trigger . . . quite a few folks who know firearms inside and out contended that Baldwin’s account didn’t seem plausible:

Alec Baldwin: I said, ‘Do you see that?’ She goes, ‘Well, just cheat it down and tilt it down a little bit like that.’ And I cock the gun, I go, ‘Can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that? And then I let go of the hammer of the gun and the gun goes off. I let go of the hammer of the gun, the gun goes off.

George Stephanopoulos: At the moment?

Alec Baldwin: That was the moment the gun went off. Yeah. That was the moment the gun went off.

George Stephanopoulos: It wasn’t in the script for the trigger to be pulled?

Alec Baldwin: Well, the trigger wasn’t pulled, I didn’t pull the trigger.

George Stephanopoulos: So, you never pulled the trigger?

Alec Baldwin: No, no, no, no, no. I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them, never. Never. That was the training that I had. You don’t point a gun at me and pull the trigger. On day one of my instruction in this business, people said to me, “Never take a gun and go click, click, click, click, click. Because even though it’s incremental, you damage the firing pin on the gun if you do that, don’t do that.”

George Stephanopoulos: And Hall’s attorney told ABC News that he was watching and agrees that Alec did not pull the trigger and that his finger was outside the trigger guard.

Stephen Gutowski of The Reload wrote in USA Today that, “Despite how often people will say a gun just ‘went off’ on its own, it’s an extremely uncommon phenomenon. Modern guns have internal safeties that make it impossible for the gun to fire without the trigger being pulled — even in cases where the gun is dropped while loaded. Even antique gun designs have features that prevent the gun from firing on its own.”

And last night, I ran across this short video featuring actor John Schneider — you may remember him from The Dukes of Hazzard and Smallville — discussing and demonstrating how a single-action Colt such as the one Baldwin was holding simply cannot fire itself. The video already has 2 million views, and it is easy to see why: Schneider calmly, slowly, and clearly demonstrates basic gun safety, all of the steps one should take when picking up a gun to see if it’s loaded, and all of the steps one should take when firing a revolver such as the one on the Rust set. The conclusion is that it is extremely hard to believe Baldwin’s claim that the gun fired without his pulling the trigger, or the witnesses’ contention that Baldwin’s finger was outside the trigger guard.

Since the deadly shooting, we’ve heard a lot of discussion and debate about whether the handling of firearms on the Rust set was particularly reckless or whether this might be one of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood — that big productions with experienced armorers always follow all necessary precautions for handing firearms and ensuring they never come near live rounds, but smaller productions with smaller budgets . . . might be significantly less safety-conscious.

If it is the latter, and a lot of Hollywood actors have seen dangerous mishandling of weapons and live rounds while filming movies and television shows, would that explain why certain big-name actors and actresses support gun control? They’ve seen examples of irresponsible gun ownership and handling, and they think or fear that most gun owners are similarly irresponsible?

ADDENDUM: I don’t like to tout things before they happen, but barring something going terribly wrong, you’re going to want to listen to the episode of the Three Martini Lunch podcast that we’re taping today. Greg and I have been doing this show for more than eleven years, and we’ve never had a guest . . . until now. And we wouldn’t break up the usual format if it wasn’t special. I don’t want to say who it is until it happens. But let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised that this figure was willing to appear on the show. This person handled our past criticism with great class and respect, and I am looking forward to the conversation.

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