We are sticking our heads into the sand regarding the reality of omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.

Virus Outbreak

People wait in a long line to get tested for COVID-19 in New York’s Times Square last week. The federal government didn’t prioritize making at-home tests widely available until omicron had already reached the United States. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Omicron took over from delta in the U.S. last month, as it’s a vastly more infectious variant of COVID-19 and our vaccines offer much lower protection from infection without a booster. Still, surveys show that omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of Americans to get a booster – or even get a first vaccine dose.

The only silver lining is that omicron, so far, appears to cause a milder illness than delta. Yet the World Health Organization has warned about the “mildness” narrative because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine ineffectiveness undercut the less severe overall nature of omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned, in a major omicron wave this winter.

Yet despite this very serious threat, we see little real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines, which might have helped if omicron wasn’t already detected in over half of all states. But it’s not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.

Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89 percent. Due to this effectiveness, the Food and Drug Administration approved ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. But it dragged its feet on the approval process, getting around to emergency authorization only last week. That delay meant no Paxlovid availability as the omicron wave grew, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production.

Widespread at-home testing also would enable people to test themselves quickly, slowing the spread of omicron. Yet the federal government did not prioritize making these tests widely available until omicron had already invaded. This month, 500 million tests are to be distributed, but that certainly didn’t offer any help over the holidays.


Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play, for example: Google, Uber and Ford. Companies that have already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements.

Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with delta.

What explains this puzzling behavior? Leaders – like the rest of us – are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors, called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blind spots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.

One of the biggest challenges relevant to omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet business and political leaders denied the reality of this risk.

When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes leaders used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, whether in drug approval or work arrangements.

The way forward is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future. In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might adapt to our new normal. COVID will never go away; we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.

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