Are We Missing Something About Omicron?
Is Omicron mild?
As Omicron spreads across the globe, its mildness doesn’t stand out, but the number of infections does stand out. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human service’s data, 142,388 people with COVID were hospitalised until Sunday. That figure beat the previous peak of 142,315 on January 14 last year. The seven-day average of daily hospitalisations was 132,086, an increase of 83 percent from two weeks ago.
Since the Omicron variant was discovered, researchers and reports have called Omicron a mild variant. Some have gone as far as welcoming Omicron because it causes a mild infection. It’s nature’s vaccine, said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
During the earlier phase of the pandemic — before all these variants emerged — some people dismissed COVID-19 as mild or compared the virus with flu, but now we know that wasn’t a wise approach. Countries recorded staggering death numbers, and healthcare crumbled under each COVID wave. So why are we again repeating the same narrative? Is the omicron variant mild?
Omicron spares lungs; it doesn’t lead to hospitalisation; laboratory experiments on mice concluded that sick mice were able to fight the virus; omicron doesn’t attack the lung tissue, and other innocuous observations about omicron have led people to believe that they should get done with the infection as soon as possible. But in our bid to trivialize the variant, we have forgotten or ignored other aspects of infection.
The severity of infection doesn’t depend on the virus but also on the host. Labeling Omicron “mild” has made the virus look benign, as if it’s trained to go easy on hosts. However, it will be foolish to view the variants as genial to humans.
While the virus may be less severe than its previous variant, we forgot that more resilient hosts are also responsible for less severity of the variant.
Two years into the pandemic, people are vaccinated or have been infected in previous COVID-19 waves, which leave their bodies in a better position to fight the virus. Further, South Africa, which saw a mild omicron wave had a younger population, so the population was better prepared to fight the virus.
The variant is less severe but it can still be disastrous
It’s difficult to conclude how severe the virus is in a world that’s vaccinated, but the omicron variant is less severe than the delta variant. But the delta variant was more lethal than its predecessor, and omicron compared with delta, is less severe, so when we call omicron mild, we are undermining the risk associated with omicron.
We must keep in mind that omicron is even infecting people who have taken three vaccine doses, so calling it a mild variant is deceptive. Omicron can still cause severe infection in people who are unvaccinated or vaccinated but vulnerable.
Omicron is spreading fast and is infecting people in hordes. Even if a small percentage of a large number of infected people require hospitalisation, it will be disastrous for an already crippled healthcare system.
Omicron may not be directly responsible for the hospitalisation of people with chronic disease, but it’s pushing the chronic cases towards fatality that require hospitalisation.
“If you’re on the margin of coming into the hospital, COVID tips you over,” said Vineet Arora, a hospitalist at the University of Chicago Medicine. In such cases, COVID might not be listed as a reason for admission, but the patient wouldn’t have been admitted were it not for COVID.
Omicron at the individual level may be less severe, but it has a devastating effect on the system as a whole. Hospitals and essential services are facing staff shortages of the worse kind. Omicron may be milder at the individual symptom level,” said Duana Fullwiley, a medical anthropologist at Stanford who has studied how the term mild has affected people’s experience of sickle-cell anaemia in Senegal. “But we’re not talking about the severity of Omicron as it’s impacting the system.”
Long COVID emanating from Omicron cases have made the treatment challenging for doctors, and the quality of life has degraded for patients suffering from long covid. And allowing the variant to circulate is not a good idea as the more the virus transmits, the higher the chances of mutation are. And we never know what the next variant would be like?
What Mild means?
And the word that started it all, “mild”, has a different connotation in the medical field and in daily parlance. People usually use mild in conversation to refer to something “pleasant, benign, temperate”, but doctors use mild for anything from asymptomatic infection to infection that is short of collapsed lungs or respiratory failure.
Trust me; you don’t want to be sick to an extent that the only positive aspect is that you can breathe on your own.