How can Kiwis size up the Omicron threat? – Expert Reaction

The job of assessing the personal risks of Omicron is now falling more on individuals, families, and organisations.

Should I go out for dinner? Should we require our employees to wear masks in the office? For all Kiwis, everyday decisions will be increasingly shaped by perceived Omicron risk, in light of rising Omicron spread and fewer restrictions on movement than under the alert-level framework. But how good are we at predicting and preventing personal health threats?

The SMC asked experts to comment on this topic. 

Dr Jagadish Thaker, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, Journalism & Marketing – Te Pou Aro Korero, Massey University, comments:

“When we assess risk, we are not only evaluating information about the impact and intensity of an event, such as the risk of hospitalisation and death due to COVID-19. We are also looking at other factors, such as what our trusted sources say and do. We not only think about risks; we feel and react to them.

“When COVID-19 hit us two years ago, there was a lot of uncertainty, and people trusted experts to guide us. Now a very high double vaccination rate and reports of a “mild” Omicron wave may have led people to discount the risks of COVID-19. We probably feel that we are now in a better position to control the risks due to COVID-19 personally.

“While we did not see as much polarisation on and protests on COVID-19 preventive measures as in other countries such as the US and Australia, it appears that there may be a shift in public opinion in how the public sees the government managing the crisis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ratings were at the lowest now since she became the Prime Minister in 2017, according to a recent national poll by 1News and Kantar.

“While a segment of the population continues to be very worried, and rightly so, others have either run out of mental strength or see increasing economic risks due to reduced business demand, border closures, and worker shortages amidst a historic increase in living costs. The recent 1News Kantar poll found that about half (49%) of respondents feel that the economy will be in the worst shape in the next 12 months, along with a sharp 7% point drop in optimism from 29% in November 2021 to 22% in January 2022.

“Honest and transparent communication—that acknowledges errors in policy and practice—focusing on COVID-19 preventive measures such as vaccination, masking, and contact tracing, should help reinforce the message that eternal vigilance is the price for safety and freedom that we enjoy in a largely COVID-free country. New Zealand has been an exception, and our ability to continue to save lives from COVID-19 will rely on our collective response. Our risk aversion or acceptance needs to be tempered with evidence-based policies.”

No conflict of interest.

Jacqui Maguire, Registered Clinical Psychologist, comments:

“The way in which we perceive threat (“How at risk am I?”) is unrelated to how optimistic or pessimistic we are in our day-to-day life. Therefore, ‘glass half-empty’ people don’t by default think they are more at risk of catching Covid-19. Instead, human beings are able to assess and perceive risk for each unique threat we face.

“Psychological research demonstrates that we amalgamate statistical data, our personal past experiences and consistent messaging (e.g. what is presented in the media consistently) to form these unique risk assessments. The mood someone is in also influences their risk perception. For example, someone experiencing a high level of anger is more likely to perceive a lower threat risk (because it is an emotion of perceived control) than someone experiencing fear (perceived lack of control).

“Risk perception is closely tied to health behaviour. For example, if someone believes they are at high risk of contracting Omicron they are more likely to adhere to public health guidelines.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been only limited and rapidly emerging data on emerging variants. At the start of the pandemic (March 2020) we did not have past experiences to rely on, and we had consistent messaging from government officials warning us of Covid-19’s high threat. Questions such as: “How prevalent is Covid-19 in the community”; “What is my risk of exposure to Covid-19” and “What is the risk I will get very sick or die if I contract Covid-19” likely underpinned people’s views and influenced their behaviour. During the first lockdown, fear, anxiety and a desire to care for our communities was high and thus we saw high levels of public health compliance.

“In times of uncertainty people also rely on secondary risk assessments (e.g. how risky do you think Omicron is right now?). This is why social media can have such a major impact on people’s beliefs and behaviour; and why dangerous misinformation can spread and impact so quickly.

“Two years on, New Zealand has had extremely low Covid-19 transmission and related deaths compared to our global counterparts. We have also had the delayed variance onsets, resulting in the ability for New Zealanders to gather information by watching the rest of the world. For example, Kiwis have been able to see the high infection rates of Omicron in Australia – and therefore can more accurately predict that Omicron is highly infectious.

What can people do?

“1. Understand that the way we perceive risk is influenced by many factors; including our past experiences, the people we surround ourselves with, and where we turn to gather our information.

2. Know that when we are facing great stress and uncertainty, and when we are bombarded by information, we find it difficult to hear and remember information accurately. We can also easily misinterpret information. This can mean we make decisions based on habit rather than based on accurate risk assessments.

3. Gather your information from reputable sources (e.g. the Ministry of Health and World Health Organization) rather than social media.

4. If you are feeling hopeless or helpless, do something! Preparing an Omicron isolation pack, for example, helps you feel more in control and heightens a belief that you will cope, rather than ruminating in inaction.”

What can organisations do?

“Organisations need to prepare Omicron risk-management plans by carefully considering the available data and taking advice from experts (both from an epidemiological and industry perspective). As we have the benefit of observing global trends, it would be helpful to gain advice from their international counterparts – as we can benefit from their learning. Staff safety and business continuity will both be considered, however staff safety and wellbeing must be paramount. It is important for leaders to communicate as clearly and coherently as possible, as fast as possible. They will need to repeat that messaging consistently. Where answers aren’t known, leaders should authentically express this along with the message that they are working on discovering the answers.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Amanda Wallis, Research Lead, Umbrella Wellbeing Ltd, comments:

“With Omicron spreading in our community, and infections predicted to rise sharply, now is the time for organisations to look closely at the psychological risks facing their workers due to work design and management – often called “psychosocial hazards” – and how these will be exacerbated by Omicron’s spread.

“For people to thrive at work without negative psychosocial impact, workers need a certain level of job security, consultation about change, social support, autonomy and flexibility, healthy work environments, and reasonable workload and working hours – among other factors. There should also be a human-centred focus on supporting hauora as a priority.

“Psychosocial harm may result when business continuity plans designed to protect against the spread of Omicron compromise the factors that support healthy work. For example, psychological distress may be more prevalent when call centre staff transition to working from home without the added social supports of working in a centre. This distress can be further compounded if they are exposed to a higher volume of difficult calls due to Omicron (e.g., for those working in the healthcare profession).

“To protect against psychosocial harm, organisations should assess their health and safety risks considering Omicron’s spread and ensure that these assessments actively consider and mitigate against psychosocial – not just physical – risks. Worker participation in these processes and decisions is crucial – ensuring that staff feel involved in changes that affect them.

“Organisations should also prepare for people to perceive and react differently to Omicron-related risk. A large body of research shows that humans are not always rational actors in the face of natural hazards or disaster risk. Instead, our individual interpretation of risk is guided by unique experiences, values, cultural beliefs, biases, and emotional responses.

“Cognitive fatigue will also play a role as people, especially those responsible for caring for others, are burdened with the mental toll of making frequent risk assessments about the safety of their individual movements. This cognitive fatigue may influence people’s overall wellbeing and their ability to function well at work.

“Organisations are encouraged to offer additional psychological support, with an emphasis on open and compassionate communication to support the wellbeing of employees impacted by Omicron. Managers should speak with employees individually about their situation, concerns, and comfort levels. Furthermore, workplaces should ensure that there is equitable access to high-quality information organisation-wide, that wellbeing is clearly prioritised with strong action, and that all employees – regardless of role or seniority – are given equal opportunity to care for and protect themselves and their whānau in the ways in which they see fit.”

Conflict of interest statement:  Umbrella Wellbeing provides end-to-end workplace wellbeing support, partnering with organisations to consult on strategic wellbeing, psychosocial risk, and build leadership skills and competence in managing wellbeing and mental health.

Kate Hannah, Research Fellow, Department of Physics, University of Auckland; and project lead for The Disinformation Project, Te Pūnaha Matatini, comments:

“What we know from our own lived experiences and the research is that communities that work together for collective wellbeing come out of disasters and tragedies better off – in terms of wellbeing, resilience, and recovery. Omicron presents a scenario quite similar to one that New Zealanders are familiar with – a natural disaster which is unpredictable, and where being prepared and having a plan – as a whānau, as a community, and as a country, really helps to protect those who will be most affected.

“Generally, when people are faced with high levels of risk and uncertainty, and an inability to plan for the future for themselves and their families, we understand that these are circumstances when misinformation and conspiratorial thinking can take hold. But actually, people are pretty good at assessing risk, and making informed decisions when they focus on how they and their whānau can be prepared – and here’s the key point – help others to be prepared too!

“So as whānau and community, plan together to work through omicron preparedness – from supplies to lists, and contact details. Taking control of what we can helps limit the sense of helplessness that some may feel faced with the larger problem. New Zealanders understand well what is at stake here – how it is that our behaviour and choices might impact those who will be more severely impacted should they contract Omicron, including our tamariki and pēpi who cannot yet be vaccinated. Our experiences of the last two years of the pandemic have prepared Aotearoa well to understand that we are all connected, and that our actions affect others.

“Many organisations – from businesses to NGOs and educational facilities – are providing their communities with opportunities to participate in support and manaaki for others – be that through support sign-up sheets or through donating to ensure everyone has access to key items for their Omicron preparedness kit. This kind of community preparation is critical to both getting through Omicron, and to people’s health and wellbeing during uncertain times. Do reach out, connect, volunteer your skills or time or money to help others. It is together that we get through this. And remember, if you or your whānau are trying to make a decision about risk – take time, take a deep breath or two, go outside, connect to nature and people, and consider what it is we’re aiming for – community wellbeing, protection of our vulnerable, a connected country.”

No conflict of interest declared. Kate Hannah leads the Disinformation Project which is part of Te Pūnaha Matatini, where she is an investigator & research manager. She is also a PhD student at the Centre for Science in Society at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

Professor Niki Harre, Professor of Psychology, University of Auckland, comments:

“It is important to remember that even as Omicron spreads through the community, it is not quite right to say that people need to assess and make judgements based on their own personal risk or circumstances. Some people, some of the time, will be able to make choices about potential exposure, but many people, most of the time will not have a realistic choice. As I see it, the government has focused on protecting people from exposure since the pandemic first reached New Zealand. We, as a community, had long periods of feeling ‘safe’ from the virus. What has changed is not, primarily, that now it is up to everyone to make their own choices about exposure; what has changed is that we, as a community, are likely to soon have the virus circulating to a significant extent. This means we need different rules and guidelines about how to manage our interactions with each other.

“For most people most of the time, it will be a matter of doing what is required by the rules set by the government and the protocol of the different places they enter. Again, many people will have little or no choice about this, especially in terms of their workplace. If you have no known health conditions or circumstances that make catching Omicron especially risky – i.e. over and above the baseline risk for everyone – then you don’t need to ‘make decisions’ unless you want to. If you do have health conditions or are in circumstances that make catching Omicron riskier than the baseline, then you may want to talk this through with a health practitioner. However, many people with some degree of additional risk (e.g. they are in regular close contact with someone over the age of 85), will still have little capacity to significantly reduce their risk if they want to keep their job or continue with their education. It is crucial we don’t make these people feel it is ‘all on them’ – it isn’t, it is on us as a community. And, as a community, we must balance the risk of Covid-19 with all the other aspects of social life. Ensuring complete protection from Covid-19 has now been judged – rightly in my view – to carry too high a cost for our lives in general.

“If, because of having a higher risk than baseline, or because of high levels of anxiety about the virus (or, probably, a combination of the two) you want to go to greater lengths to protect yourself, this may be feasible some of the time. Wearing masks, even when not required, avoiding optional social events – shows, parties with friends and so on – these are within your control. It is important, I think, that we respect other people’s choices about these optional behaviours and activities. Even if you think wearing a mask in some circumstances is unnecessary, other people should be helped to feel comfortable doing so if they choose.

“Where it gets tricky is when other people’s desire to protect themselves means that they are unable to do their work tasks or, for some people, essential family tasks. So, for example, if you are a university academic, and you do not want to teach in-person due to possible exposure to the virus, this has implications for other staff and students at the university. Then, it ceases to be a personal issue and becomes a collective issue. To what extent can an institution allow for people who are particularly cautious? To a degree this question has always been around, not everyone is as ‘robust’ as everyone else – either in general or with regard to particular tasks. Some workplaces will have the flexibility to manage some people’s extra cautious approach, many will not. It is a fine balance, as there can be unreasonable pressure in both directions. For example, insistence from workplaces that people carry out tasks in certain ways that perhaps increase risk unnecessarily (while still being within the law), or insistence from employees that they should be allowed to not do a certain task or do it in a certain way because of the Covid-19 risk.

“It is neither everyone’s ‘right’ or their ‘responsibility’ to protect themselves from Covid-19 – this is a highly collective task, as has been stressed in the hugely successful vaccination drive. The collective enterprise of living together must continue and we all take some Covid-19 risk to ensure that. But we do so to keep what we value working – including everyone’s livelihoods. There is no risk-free scenario as a society.

“So my advice is to follow the rules, and as a member of an organisation to help construct protocol that, as much as possible, balance what the particularly cautious would like, with the need to keep the organisation afloat and ensure those who are less cautious do not carry a greater load. You do not need to assess your own risk unless you want to, and if you are worried, then it would be good to talk through your health conditions and circumstances with a health professional.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Nigel French, Co-Director, One Health Aotearoa; and Chief Scientist, NZ Food Safety Science and Research Centre, comments:

“When making decisions concerning the ongoing situation in Aotearoa New Zealand it’s important to bear in mind that we still have ongoing transmission of the more severe Delta variant.

“This underlines the need to continue to protect yourselves, your whānau, and the more vulnerable in the community, through vaccination and all the other measures designed to prevent community transmission and severe illness. This includes wearing appropriate masks, distancing, scanning, testing and isolation when required, and avoiding large gatherings and other higher risk settings (e.g. indoor, poorly ventilated) wherever possible.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a member of the Ministry of Health Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group.”

Dr Maja Graso, Senior Lecturer and Social Psychologist, Department of Management, University of Otago, comments:

What advice do you have for assessing the risks of Omicron – for individuals, families, or organisations?

“Put the risks of Covid-19 in context. My research has shown that while under-estimation of Covid-19 threat used to be a more significant problem, it is over-estimation that may be a threat now. As numerous other public experts have communicated already, there are reasons to take it seriously. However, like any threat, it should be calibrated accurately; over-estimating Covid-19 risks could be as damaging to self and others as under-estimating the risks. If we do not update our knowledge and continue to over-estimate Covid-19, it will lead to severe stress and spending disproportional resources on smaller threats (while ignoring others).”

What does it mean for our society to have widespread risk assessment by the public? 

“It is not a secret that laypeople are often misinformed when it comes to Covid-19. Their lack of knowledge, however, does not mean they do not influence public policy. For instance, under-estimation of Covid-19 or belief in conspiracy theories (e.g., unfounded cures) may lead people to disregard certain rules and risk the lives of the vulnerable. Similarly, being misinformed may also mean that people over-estimate the threat and believe Covid-19 to have far greater negative consequences than it does. That, too, has negative consequences. If people mis-calibrate the severity of risks one way or another, their erroneous judgements may jeopardise either public health, or the restoration of social and economic life essential for the building of a resilient post-pandemic New Zealand.”

What can organisations do to better assess risk and make decisions that affect their staff and others?

“Frankly put, organisations should avoid absurd rules (e.g., asking customers to wear masks while entering a food establishment, even though eating and drinking is exempt from the government’s recommendation for the public to wear masks in food venues).” To be sure, Covid-19 and particularly Omicron spread exponentially, so one rendezvous of well-connected individuals can spread to hundreds within days. To eliminate (vs. reduce) risk, it may be tempting to do as much as we humanly can. But, we also need to know when to stop and when to direct our limited resources to more immediate threats.”

“This is a documented psychological phenomenon; as threats become rarer (e.g., better managed, controlled, treated, etc.), we actually notice them more – as reported in this Harvard study. The consequence is that people continue to see the problem, even past the point when the problem starts to be better managed. As deaths and hospitalisations become less frequent, people may shift attention to cases, new variants, and uneven vaccinations, which collectively may lead decision-makers to continue to impose, and citizens to tolerate numerous restrictions.”

“Organisations and decision-makers need to know when to stop. Whether to continue restrictions is not a decision that can be made exclusively by health scientists because societal well-being cannot be reduced to a single indicator of success (i.e., deaths of Covid-19 or hospitalizations); instead, it involves consideration of competing priorities and limited resources (mental health, economics, and education, among others).

“Ensuring that everyone is safe from Covid-19 – besides being a goal no society has reached – is at odds with giving people certainty and predictability essential for societal well-being.

“Therefore, this decision becomes a matter of values. The interlinking systems – comprised of politicians, organisational decision-makers, and their constituencies – direct which risks and collateral costs they are willing to accept once vaccines are shown to be effective at preventing the worst outcomes. Continuing to pursue Covid-19 without re-calibrating our approaches in light of new information and new costs from restrictions means we may be on a path to a Pyrrhic victory – a success that comes at a significant cost to people who will be vulnerable in different ways later.”

What will it mean for society to have differing levels of Omicron risk acceptance in families, workplaces and communities?

“If we do not see a threat the same, we will find it easier to demonize each other. We have been directing efforts to educate those who dismiss vaccines or believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19. Those individuals have no right to jeopardize public health. But people who greatly over-estimate Covid-19 risks shouldn’t go unchallenged either.

“Unless people recalibrate their risks to reflect the currently available knowledge, divisions are inevitable. Early in the pandemic, under-estimation of Covid-19 risks (or even dismissal) was a major problem.

“At this very point in time (1 Feb, 2022), there may also be another problem where people over-estimate these risks greatly. Take, for instance, the threat that Covid-19 poses to children, which is of interest to me as a parent. My upcoming research (under revision currently) based on 1,400+ participants suggests that people on average believe that approximately 8% of all Covid-19 deaths were children.

While children are not exempt from infections or serious consequences, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they were “0.00%-0.25% of all COVID-19 deaths, and 4 states reported zero child deaths.” Even ‘long Covid’ is less severe and shorter in duration for children.

No conflict of interest. “I am a social psychologist teaching ethics and organisational behaviour.”