As the omicron variant sweeps across the nation, prompting long lines at COVID testing sites, there is a small silver lining: there are fewer hospitalizations and deaths from omicron than from last year's delta variant.
"Our vaccines, especially when combined with boosters, have remained extremely effective at keeping people out of the hospital and it is saving their lives," said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Still, since omicron began spreading in the U.S. over the holiday season, there have been millions of new COVID infections.
“This omicron variant is more transmissible than previous versions,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
Dr. Lee is also the executive director of PHICOR (Public Health Informatics, Computational and Operations Research) and has been studying and tracking COVID since the pandemic began.
“Based on the data, it looks like the peak of this current omicron wave will probably occur sometime in mid-January,” he said.
By then, millions more Americans could potentially be infected with COVID. However, it’s what happens in the months after those infections that will need to be looked at closely, including what omicron might mean in terms of new long-haul COVID cases.
“Long COVID is something that's many times overlooked and not discussed,” Dr. Lee said. “People are focusing on things like deaths or potentially hospitalizations, and so many people tend to forget there is a significant percentage of people who are suffering from long COVID.”
Dr. Lee says with previous variants, there has been some correlation between how severe a COVID case is and how likely that person will become a long-hauler. Yet, he says, there is something about that which needs to be emphasized.
“This is not a super strong correlation,” he said. “Meaning, that there have been many cases of people having mild milder symptoms or milder COVID-19 early on, but they continue to have persistent symptoms.”
Those symptoms can run the gamut: from a loss of taste or smell to muscle pains to brain fog, among others.
The World Health Organization defines long COVID as having symptoms more than three months after initial infection, a timeline not reached with omicron yet.
“So, it's not clear what percentage of people who've been infected with the omicron variant will develop these persistent long COVID symptoms versus other variants,” Dr. Lee said.
It is something that, for omicron cases, might not become clearer until the spring.