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Just in time for the holidays, the Omicron variant storms into our lives. Thanks for nothing.

A COVID-19 test center operated inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday.Mario Tama/Getty Images

There’s a new coronavirus variant people are freaking out about. Or they’re freaking out about the people who are freaking out about it. Or they don’t freaking care anymore. It’s exhausting being exhausted for 20 long months.

Boosters are available now, and kids can finally get vaccinated. So even as the pandemic grinds on, Thanksgiving brought hope for better days, with many family and friends able to reunite for the holiday.

But with bitterly cruel timing, news of the Omicron variant broke the very next day, fracturing our fragile sense of normalcy and jolting us back into pandemic mode with a whole new mess of uncertainty.


Its inevitable arrival in the United States came Wednesday, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the first case had been identified in California. The person, who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22, was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms.

The scientist who discovered the Omicron variant said it appears to be mild. President Biden said “it’s cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” The CEO of BioNTech said its vaccine will “probably” protect against severe disease. The CEO of Moderna hinted that its might not do so well, saying the scientists he’s spoken to believe “this is not going to be good.”

Whatever your interpretation or risk tolerance, the arrival of a variant was at once dismaying and infuriating, a dreary sign that the masks, shots, swabs, and bubbles probably won’t disappear soon.

“The feeling that it’s never going to change and that we’re going to be in this forever is fueling and maintaining a cycle of stress,” said Soo Jeong Youn, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

For some people, Youn said, Omicron is just further evidence that the new normal means living in a constant state of anxiety. But others were defiant, saying they had no plans to let Omicron alter their lives.


“I’m not going to give into the fear,” said Dianne Parisi, 50, of Rockport. “Fear is not a virtue. It’s not healthy. You have to live your life. When it comes time for the holidays, I’m going to see my family. If somebody doesn’t want to come, that’s their choice. But I’m not going to stay home and cower.”

In Manchester-by-the-Sea, 76-year-old Katherine Keith was taking a walk, wearing a mask, and kicking herself for spending much of the last year-and-a-half indoors.

“I was someone who exercised four times a week, then COVID came and I spent 17 months sitting in a chair, watching TV, and doing nothing, and now I have a whole host of health problems I didn’t have before,” she said.

“It’s my own fault. Yes, I was following instructions, doing what I was told to do, but I could have exercised at home. I could have found somewhere safe to go for a walk. But instead my daughter brought my groceries and I hardly ever left the house.”

Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist who is the cofounder of Tend Health, which specializes in counseling for health care professionals, said people throughout the pandemic have been searching for a semblance of control over something that has caused so much fear and loss.

“As humans, we like to feel agency,” she said. “When we are activated and feel unsafe, that’s when the finger-pointing comes in. So in working with people on their messaging, the first goal is whatever they need to do to return to a place where they feel physical and psychological safety. And that looks different for everyone.”


That lack of control gnaws at the health care workers she treats, she said.

“They were forced to go through all of this without any choice and agency,” she said. “Many of them got COVID while working, but for the most part, they don’t seem to be angry about being infected. They accept that as part of the job. What makes them very angry is the people who are choosing not to get vaccinated. That’s who they’re seeing in the hospital, and they have no choice but to care for them.”

It all feels endless. And therein lies the difficulty, according to Luana Marques, a psychiatrist who specializes in teaching patients to manage their uncertainty by confronting the true nature of the situation, however difficult.

“One of the things people do when they are emotionally exhausted is they avoid reality,” said Marques, director of the Community Psychiatry Program for Research in Implementation and Dissemination of Evidence-Based Treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital. “They feel so empty and tired that even acknowledging what’s happening may be too much.”

But ignoring the new variant won’t make it go away, Marques said. That’s especially hard to accept with the holiday season upon us.


“What I’ve heard from a lot of patients is they had such a relief seeing family, but now they feel like they don’t know what to do going into Christmas and the New Year,” she said. “It’s a crossroads for people.”

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker. Julia Carlin can be reached at