When COVID case counts erupted in their latest surge last month, scientists and citizens fell back on a hopeful note: The Omicron variant causes less severe illness than the virus’s older iterations.
There was some solace in the realization that a mutation infecting thousands of people daily would be “mild.” Fewer residents will suffer than in the heyday of the dangerous Delta variant, we thought. Not as many would end up in the hospital.
Turns out that was just partly true.
For most, it is little more than a cold. (Yes, this gave rise to a hashtag: #Omicold.) But an unlucky group has found that “mild” is — to put it mildly — something of an understatement. They’re saddled with illness that hampers everyday life, including work and child-care responsibilities. Even with a full course of vaccination and a booster, their bodies are wiped out by a virus that once brought the world to its knees.
At least, that was the case for Steve Stiles.
The Salem resident tested positive in mid-December after taking “every possible precaution,” including two mRNA shots, but not a booster. But COVID sparked 10-minute coughing fits and brain fog. More than a month later, the 46-year-old still feels an unnatural pressure on his chest and lungs and intense fatigue.
“All of a sudden, if I shut my eyes, I am out for hours,” he said.
It’s strange, Stiles added, because his oxygen levels are normal. “I envy the people who say it’s come and gone in three days,” he said. Because sometimes, “it’s like starting over,” and the symptoms are worse again.
Many people diagnosed with COVID in recent weeks experienced nothing at all. Others dealt with congestion or a cough. Some say symptoms dissipated after five days of isolation, the amount now mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers found that Omicron is less likely to kill a COVID patient or send them to the hospital. And even for those who are hospitalized, the virus largely remains in the nose and throat rather than the lungs, causing fewer patients to have breathing problems or need a ventilator.
Stiles — like others who spoke to the Globe — cannot confirm he was infected with the Omicron variant, because few positive samples are genetically sequenced and categorized by strain. But all those contacted contracted the virus after Omicron — which accounted for 95 percent of cases here by Jan. 5 —became dominant in Massachusetts.
The level of illness an infected person experiences comes down to a mixture of exposure and luck, said Dr. Daniel Solomon, a physician in the infectious disease division of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It depends on the amount of a virus someone came in contact with and its interaction with a host’s immune response.
“There is obviously a spectrum,” Solomon said. “I talked to a family last week who all got COVID. One person had no symptoms. One person had a cold. One person had a headache and brain fog for a week. And they all lived under the same roof.”
One clear cost of widespread Omicron infections is the strain on the hospital system. A smaller percentage of Omicron cases require hospitalization than earlier strains of the virus, and the adoption of vaccines has pushed that percentage down even lower. But there are just so many cases right now that hospitals are overwhelmed, said Dr. Richard Schwartzstein from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. So what may be “mild” for an individual could be catastrophic for the community, he added. And with positive cases and quarantines thinning already overstretched staff, health care systems are bearing the brunt of the crisis.
The consequences can be seen in homes, too.
Julia Taliesin, 26, caught the virus on a holiday trip to Pennsylvania with her partner. It turned into a sore throat and hacking cough that made it difficult to sleep. Ten days later, her serious congestion persisted.
“People are talking about mild cases of COVID as if it’s a cold — and it’s not,” the North Cambridge resident said. “We shouldn’t be comfortable with the concept of a mild case.”
Another Boston woman, who declined to share her name due to privacy concerns, became a “hermit” this past year to protect her pregnancy, she said. Then her husband contracted the virus during an indoor meal with friends and spread it to her. (The couple were vaccinated before they conceived.)
At 39 weeks pregnant, she became lightheaded with a sore throat and congestion, fearful that she would go into labor while ill.
“It made me realize that usually I could go skydiving, and only I would be at risk,” she said. “But with Omicron, I feel like if I go skydiving, I’m affecting everyone else’s parachute, too.”
As a chronic pneumonia patient, Danvers resident Sheli Denman knows what it feels like to be sick. She endured three months of pneumonia, even as the COVID outbreak began back in March 2020.
But in early January, she caught COVID with paralyzing fatigue and a crippling brain fog. She felt like words weren’t coming together in her head, like her memory was shattered into a million pieces. That was on top of the lesser symptoms: an upset stomach, headache, and an elevated heart rate.
“My filter was broken,” added Denman, whose twin sons also contracted the virus.
Nathan Smith of Beverly found that his doctorate in epidemiology — Smith studied addiction, not infectious disease, but still — was of little use when navigating health decisions for his own family. He tested positive for the virus, but his wife, a fifth-grade teacher, and his 2-year-old did not.
He experienced chills, lower back pain, and night sweats — alone. Almost 20 days later, Smith wondered, when will the fatigue and gastrointestinal issues go away?
“I’m working now, but I get exhausted so easily,” he said.
Simply because the Omicron variant is new, there’s little research about its link to long COVID, the physical, neurological, and cognitive symptoms that can persist indefinitely after infection. Solomon said some evidence indicates that vaccinated people are less likely to endure long-term symptoms, but the science is scant.
He and Schwartzstein advise against a burgeoning philosophy, where people stop taking precautions against COVID in the hopes that infection will spur herd immunity and end the pandemic. (Senator Rand Paul said Omicron is “basically nature’s vaccine.”)
“That’s playing with fire,” Schwartzstein said.
Those who contracted COVID and watched it wreak havoc on their bodies — and lives — shared simpler advice: It doesn’t matter how long the pandemic has dragged on. Take the virus seriously.
“Don’t say this is nothing, because so many people have gotten COVID already [or] because some people are OK,” Denman said. “It’s not nothing.”