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Vespignani: «Omicron will let go in January. Getting vaccinated against Covid will be normal, just like for the flu “

from Giuseppe Sarcina

The epidemiologist: «The data? All important: not having them is like driving with the headlights off in the night “

FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON – “Omicron should let go, at least in the United States, from the second half of January”. But, after two years of the pandemic, “we should have learned that we need to prepare to avoid surprises.” The data “is all important.” If we did not have them “it would be like driving in the night with the headlights off”, however “they should be communicated in a more institutional way, treating the citizen as a mature person”. Alessandro Vespignani, 56 years old analyzes this phase full of uncertainties and anxieties . He is a leading expert in “computational epidemiology” and directs the “Laboratory for the modeling of biological and Socio-technical Systems” at Northeastern University in Boston.

Omicron forecasts are heavy. The World Health Organization warns that one in two Europeans will be infected. Virologist Anthony Fauci argues that the variant will eventually affect everyone. What predictions can we make from the data?
“The increase in cases due to Omicron was announced and it was said that it was going to blow the testing systems. Suffice it to say that in the United States, peaks of over one million cases per day have been reached. And we are talking about the confirmed cases which are a fraction of the real number of infections. It is because of such impressive numbers that, despite the lower severity of the infection and the protection induced by vaccines, considerable pressure is being generated on the health system in many countries. However, it must be emphasized that a very rapid growth dynamic of cases also corresponds to a rapid phase of decrease. In the United States it should start in the second half of January ».

In Italy and in America, discussions are underway as to whether it is right to disseminate the numbers on the pandemic on a daily basis. In the United States, newspapers are adopting different criteria. How should we regulate ourselves? What are the data that really matter at this stage?
«Let’s start by saying that the data are all important. Any response to the pandemic thrives on data and not having it would be like driving with the headlights off at night. Then how they are communicated is another matter. But I don’t think censorship is the best choice. Citizens must be treated with respect. It is not the data that creates havoc, but rather the type of communication that manages it. Communication should be more institutional, treating the citizen as a mature person. I give an example. Around 10 December it was known that Omicron was taking over: there were estimates of an increase in infections that would make previous waves pale and it was known that the pressure on hospitals would increase. At that point it had to be explained that today’s numbers were expected and that we have to think about the dynamics of the cases in a different way, without making comparisons with the figures we have seen in the past. Instead, in those days reassuring statements were made which ended up causing even more bewilderment when they are not realized ».

It seems to be grasping great weariness and now also a certain disappointment in public opinion. Vaccines struggle to keep up with variations. Would a different type of communication be needed? Less peremptory messages from pharmaceutical companies and scientists themselves?
«Too often we have tried to give absolute certainties. It had to be immediately communicated that vaccines are not invincible armor. There is no black and white. Instead, there are probabilities, confidence intervals, forecast limits, which require the abandonment of binary thinking summarized by the contrast “the vaccine works or does not work”. That said, what is happening with Omicron is the strongest evidence of the importance of vaccines. With the number of cases we see today, it would be a disaster without vaccines. ”

No one can predict for sure how long the pandemic will last. Do we need to equip ourselves for a long coexistence with the virus? And if so what measures should governments take? Should the vaccine be mandatory for everyone?
“We have been living with this virus for two years. And while the current spate of Omicron-fueled cases is breaking records, much has changed since the start of the pandemic. The impact of vaccines, the different antiviral treatments on the way make us optimistic. But we should all have learned that the best way to avoid surprises is to prepare. It therefore becomes important to strengthen vaccination campaigns, also thinking about recalls that are updated with respect to the variants. In addition, sequencing infrastructures must be developed in order to monitor the evolution of the virus. Again: we need to invest in public health and in the health system that is exhausted from these two years of pandemic ».

Is there a way to close the cultural divide between no vax and vaccinated? Or is it a separation destined to widen in the coming months?
“Once the emergence and the discussion tones subside, the polarization also decreases. Furthermore, the more they are used, and now more than a year has passed, the more these vaccines will be perceived as those adopted for a normal flu. It will become increasingly difficult to devise conspiracy theories and various plots. I hope I’m not too optimistic ».

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