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Long Covid patients are 'terrified' of omicron

While emerging research suggests the new variant may be less likely to lead to severe disease, those who have long Covid say they desperately want to avoid reinfection.
Image: COVID-19 Testing Demand Remains High Due To Surge Of Omicron Variant
Residents line up to receive free Covid-19 test kits Thursday outside the West End Library in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Emerging research about omicron has so far been cautiously reassuring: Despite its ability to spread at a dizzying pace, the illness it causes appears to be milder overall, at least among the vaccinated and those who have received the booster shot.

And although the variant can certainly cause severe illness and death, new studies have shown it is far less likely than the delta variant to make people sick enough to be hospitalized.

Full coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic

Such encouraging data, however, are meaningless to people with long Covid-19: those who have suffered from its symptoms for months to more than a year following their initial infection.

"You might have a mild case," Laurie Bedell, 42, of Pittsburgh, said. "But most people that have long Covid had mild cases."

She caught the virus in December 2020 and continues to have debilitating pain, fatigue and other symptoms that have transformed her from a healthy, physically active woman to a chronically ill person unable to walk or do any form of exercise for more than 5 to 10 minutes at a time.

Bedell said that she and others with long Covid are afraid to leave their homes amid omicron's spread. The variant became the most dominant in the United States within weeks of its detection, surpassing the "hypertransmissible" delta variant.

"I am terrified," she said. "I don't know that I would survive another infection."

Reinfections do seem to be a real concern. A study released this week from Public Health Scotland found that the majority of omicron cases in the country indeed appear to be among those previously infected, accounting for more than 10 times the number of reinfections associated with delta.

People with long Covid "have good reason to be worried, unfortunately," said Dr. John Baratta, founder and co-director of the UNC Covid Recovery Clinic in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

"We have seen people in our clinic who have been reinfected with Covid with the other variants," he said. "They have new or worsened long Covid symptoms after their reinfection."

Will omicron lead to long Covid?

Whether infection with the omicron variant will lead to long Covid is unknown. The variant has only been known to science for about a month; it was first identified in November in southern Africa. Therefore, it is too early to see how it will play out in the coming months.

Still, there is no evidence to suggest omicron would behave differently compared to previous variants. Covid resulted in long-term symptoms early on in the pandemic, and has continued to do so through delta.

Omicron's apparent propensity to cause less serious illness may provide a false sense of security, said Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn, medical director of the Mayo Clinic's Covid-19 Activity Rehabilitation Program in Rochester, Minnesota.

"Over three-quarters of our patients had very mild illnesses and then went on to develop long-haul Covid," he said.

The implications of a fast-spreading variant such as omicron are significant. A recent study from the Penn State College of Medicine estimated that more than half of those with Covid will have symptoms for at least six months following their infection.

As of Dec. 23, more than 51 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid.

A 'very delicate time'

For many with long Covid, the threat of omicron has coincided with a time of year that's already difficult: yet another holiday season that may not include family and friends.

"This is happening at a very delicate time for many patients," Vanichkachorn said. What's more, "a lot of our patients are reaching their one year anniversary out from their initial infection."

He has noted more feelings of depression, anxiety and hopelessness in his patients recently. Adding the threat of omicron has been "doubly hard for these individuals," he said.

"The best gift that we can give this year is camaraderie and support about this condition."

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