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So Long, Omicron?

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Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

I’m sorry folks, but the pandemic is not over yet. I really wish I had to try harder to come up with topics, but everyone’s favorite bat flu keeps returning to my arms unbeckoned. Any optimistic forecast seems to fly in the face of continued surges of the relatively mild omicron variant. Case numbers are up both internationally and locally: Humboldt County recently managed over 500 new cases in a single weekend. While the highly contagious and relatively mild omicron variant may impart a hearty layer of immunity upon the populations it affects, it may also be a prelude to another yet-unseen variant. Nobody knows what’s coming, but in a climate still rife with partisan political screeching and misinformation, everyone wants to have an opinion: how perfectly human of us. Even the official stance these days is one of hesitance: infectious disease expert Graham Medley from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has said that omicron “moves so fast that it gives very little time to prepare…decisions have to be made under huge uncertainty”.

One in five COVID patients end up with some kind of “cognitive impairment” in the months following a diagnosis.

So, if the initial impacts of omicron are less dangerous overall than previous variants, does that mean that the effects of omicron long covid are reduced in severity? Because if not, then we may be looking at an enormous spike in those affected by long-term coronavirus, which may quickly add up over the long term into something more destructive than the initial swathe of infections. Recent studies indicate that one in five COVID patients end up with some kind of “cognitive impairment” in the months following a diagnosis. Most of us have heard reports of post-COVID brain fog and sensory impairment. Some patients report a loss of taste and smell, while others are overwhelmed by a charming and continual odor of sewage or rotting flesh. A surprising 43% of all patients infected by COVID are still dealing with related symptoms, which for some have already persisted for more than a year. If you were unlucky enough to require hospitalization, your odds rise to 57%.

According to an August 2021 paper, the most common symptoms of long COVID are fatigue, headache, attention disorder, hair loss, and dyspnea (trouble breathing), although any non-baseline symptoms which persist more than a few weeks after infection are potentially indicative of long-term COVID effects. However, once we remember we’re dealing with humans, we have to take into account the chance some of these reports are humans making connections where there aren’t any. And while these statistics are based on peer-reviewed studies and not word of mouth, it’s likely that a true understanding of long-term COVID effects will be stymied by the correlation of unrelated illnesses and symptoms, making an already drawn out process that much more complicated. In another series of studies aimed to break down the effects of long COVID on patient recovery and lifestyles, an estimated 28% reported difficulty returning to physical activities or exercise, up to 39% reported difficulty returning to work, and between 29% to 47% of patients studied were unable to return to work at all.

There may very well be millions and millions of Americans who will still feel the disease’s effects years after the fact.

It seems a little careless to talk about the end of a pandemic when so many vaccinated COVID survivors are still dealing with the disease’s lingering and long-term effects months after their initial infection. Even if we get to the point where there aren’t quite so many new cases piling into hospitals, there may very well be millions and millions of Americans who will still feel the disease’s effects years after the fact. While some are hopeful that the widespread natural immunity spurred on by a relatively mild Omicron infection could move us closer to some kind of herd immunity, it strikes me as a little short-sighted to not consider the potentially dangerous effects of the omicron variant in the long term – not just with regards to future variants and mutations, but also to the long-term effects of the disease.

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.