Don’t dismiss Omicron as “gentle”. Take it from a long-haul Covid | JD Davids
On On Wednesday, the New York Times – and others – published what seemed like good news. “Omicron infections appear to be milder, report three research teams,” says the headline. Many readers must have been relieved to see this news, especially with cases skyrocketing even as the holiday season is in full swing.
As someone living with post-viral conditions exacerbated by Long Covid, I have read the story carefully. I noted the preliminary nature of the data from South Africa, Scotland and England, and the prediction that Omicron’s greater contagiousness would likely still drag many more people into already overcrowded hospitals.
But despite these caveats, I felt little relieved or reassured after reading the article. It did not contain any mention of Long Covid. Not one. This is not a minor oversight; it is a fundamental and dangerous misinterpretation of our world situation and the future that lies ahead.
We still have a lot to learn about Covid-19, including this new variant. But one thing we are certain of is that ‘mild Covid’ can be debilitating and lead to long-term or permanent illness and disability.
We now know that at least 10-30% of those who survive any Covid infection (asymptomatic or “mild” to severe) will live with (and sometimes die from) long-term Covid – a chronic syndrome crippling long-term, permanent, even fatal or fatal, the biological pathways of which are still widely unrecognized.
Even before Omicron, the CDC estimates there have been at least 146.6 million Covid infections in the United States alone – meaning at least 15 million people are estimated to have a long Covid.
And now, many once healthy people who now have long Covid are facing the Omicron wave made more vulnerable by conditions known to dramatically increase the risk of severe or fatal Covid – including long diabetes associated with Covid, stroke and lung disease.
When Omicron first hit the news in November, initial reports from South Africa indicated that many cases were mild. In some ways, this was quite predictable – the nation has a relatively young population, and more severe disease often takes several weeks to develop.
But the rapid spread of this speculation has not been politically neutral. And the potential consequences are not at all benign.
The “light” theme was quickly picked up by leaders who pledged never to repeat the blockages and other restrictions of previous waves. Tension that spreads faster as a holiday season approaches in many parts of the world would have drastic economic implications.
It was also an opportunity for the dogs to whistle over “herd immunity,” the robot-fueled and mistaken notion embraced by some of the same forces that promote climate science denial: what to prevent the spread of Covid -19 would become unnecessary or even harmful by delaying natural immunity or the development of a truly insignificant dominant strain globally.
But Omicron, less resistant to vaccines and natural immunity, is behind a huge global wave of infection. So even if there is a plus percentage mild cases, we expect a terrible death toll and strained health systems. An individual infection can quickly escalate into a multigenerational tragedy, multiplied globally. A mild infection in a youngster this Christmas could quickly lead to the death of their grandparents.
And few reports on Omicron have even long mentioned Covid as a concern. If we were in the terrifying first days of 2020, perhaps we could forgive the beleaguered general public and exhausted world leaders for not also referring to long Covid as a terrible consequence of a Covid wave.
After all, those of us living with post-viral conditions – such as ME / CFS, Dysautonomia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (Pots) – are used to being ignored, disbelieving, or misguided. We were on a few radars before Covid; even now, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Recover initiative on Long Covid has virtually ignored post-viral researchers and sidelined patient advocates.
But it has been clear for over a year that even an asymptomatic infection carries a significant risk of long Covid – a broad spectrum of over 200 symptoms and conditions that can appear months after initial infection or apparent recovery, and leave children, adults and the elderly with disabilities, chronically ill and desperate for medical care, income, shelter or even recognition that their suffering is due to genuine physical conditions.
On December 15, Dr Salim Abdool Karim of South Africa, co-author of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant: a new chapter in the COVID-19 pandemic in the Lancet, told a global audience of Zoom :
“I have no idea what lies ahead with regard to Covid… This is a really important question, and this is especially the case because Omicron is spreading so quickly and so widely so quickly – the number of people infected is so great that… if this is a common consequence of even a mild infection, you can imagine it, even if in 10% of people there are going to be a lot of people with a long Covid. This is definitely something we want to keep a close eye on.
As comrades on a terrible journey, people with post-viral conditions shared everything we’ve learned with people with long-lasting Covid – like the importance of resting and pacing instead. to overcome ME / CFS fatigue, and the shocking reality that ME / CFS has the lowest amount of NIH research funding relative to the burden of disease in the population.
We now shudder at the idea that more will join our ranks. There is nothing benign about the massive wave of loss and suffering that is sweeping our world. As a global community, we repeat phrases like “the majority of cases are mild” at our peril.
We have already lost too many lives due to the false hope that Covid-19 will become milder or subside. We have spent months without significant investments in indoor ventilation, the distribution of effective masks and global access to vaccines. We need sustainable systems of allowances, housing security and basic income support to avoid infection with Covid or deal with post-viral illnesses.
It is time to choose our words and our policies much more carefully. Let’s start by including the analysis of Long Covid and Post-Viral Illness in any report, speculation, or policy, starting with this Omicron wave.