United Airlines says that 3000 of its employees currently have Covid-19. The real number is probably higher than this, since the airline probably knows relatively few asymptomatic cases and only a portion of subclinical ones. However CEO Scott Kirby believes that the airline’s vaccine mandate has already saved the lives of 8-10 of his employees, and not a single one of its employees is currently hospitalized for Covid.
The experience with Covid-19 infection at United is hardly atypical. They’re reporting less than 4% of their workforce currently infected. Even if it’s double that they still may be below the national average. One common estimate is 5% – 10% of the country currently infected but this seems quite conservative. For comparison, a simple (and therefore necessarily wrong) back of the envelope:
- 7-day case average of 775,000
- We may be catching only 1 in 10 cases (given asymptomatic, subclinical, and the number of people just testing at home that aren’t included)
- Assuming average 5 day infectiousness period, that’s 38,750,000 currently infectious or 12% of the U.S. population
On a single day one-third of employees called out sick at Newark airport. But at one point perhaps over 20% of New York City residents were infected.
By the time we’re through the Ommicron wave we may see 40% of the population infected with this variant. Ultimately, though, while existing vaccines don’t do as good a job preventing infection against Omicron as against earlier variants (and the U.S. government de-prioritized variant-specific boosters, preferring to focus on boosting against the ancestral Wuhan strain), they do an amazing job at priming the immune system to fight and clear the virus.
— Cliff Levy (@cliffordlevy) January 9, 2022
You might think it’s misleading to say that the vaccine mandate has saved the lives of 8-10 employees, since a majority of people getting vaccinated would have done so anyway (as is the case nationally) but the comparison is to loss of life at the airline in an earlier period where many were already vaccinated. You might also think that loss of life would be lower anyway due to Omicron’s reduced virulence (for instance much shorter hospital stays) but most deaths in the last 8-10 weeks have been from Delta – so the vaccine mandate effectiveness comparison is to a period where deaths stem from the earlier variant.
The current expectation is that while prior infection with Delta doesn’t protect much more than 50% against Omicron, prior infection with Omicron should be more protective against Delta. The Omicron wave should lead to so much background immunity in the population, along with vaccination and boosters, that we exit the pandemic phase at least in the U.S. by the end of February.
Past strategies of using cloth masks probably help far less against Omicron, if you’re going to mask it should be with a higher quality mask. In some sense there’s a higher return to caution right now because of the short period in which you’d need to maintain it. And even though we do not yet have an Omicron-specific booster, the return to boosting is incredibly high and protects both against severe outcome and reduces the likelihood of infection and duration of infectiousness. Of course the pandemic has surprised us before.