TWO MONTHS into the Omicron storm and there is still very little known with certainty about the variant that has upended lives across the world. In India, Covid-19 cases have been surging at breakneck speed week after week, which experts believe is likely fuelled by the new variant. On Tuesday, India reported 1.6 lakh positive cases in the last 24 hours.
The Centre as well as various state governments have issued safety guidelines and curbs. State heads and officials have repeatedly assured citizens that even though the new infections were milder compared to the hellfire of the second wave unleashed by the Delta variant last year, the health system was ready if hospitalisations and severity of infections were to arise.
Such messages, however well-intentioned and reassuring, can send mixed signals. A recent survey shows that the general masses across cities in India are either ignorant or lack contextual guidance in mask adherence and continued laxity could prove to be disastrous.
There’s consensus that SARS-Cov2 or the novel Coronavirus is an unpredictable virus and Covid-19, the sickness it causes, affects different individuals in different ways. Some have been fortunate to have experienced minor, painless infections while others have had to suffer severe hospitalisations. Countless others have lost their lives to a disease that has kept scientists on their toes for the last two years.
And then there have been numerous cases of those who have developed what is now termed as ‘Long Covid’, a secondary syndrome that has plagued them long after they have recovered from the primary sickness itself. For some it has been a painful and sometimes even life-altering struggle.
The Long Haul
Thirty six-year-old Noida-resident Sanchita Khanna (name changed), a mother of two, had contracted Covid-19 during the second wave last summer. A month after she recovered, she kept feeling feverish. She underwent several RT-PCR tests to reassure herself. Then anxiety hit her. She suffered waves of episodes, till one day in October she had a complete meltdown and her husband, a doctor, had to rush home. She is on medication and her condition is improving.
Similar stories of long haulers are rife among his friend circle, says Preetam Mukhia (name changed), a media professional. Insomnia, fatigue and restlessness, he says, are common topics of discussion. An ex-colleague, now working in Kenya, contracted Covid-19 in June, last year. A fitness buff, she ran five miles everyday before she got sick, she could hardly do a mile after. Her health has improved, but she still hasn’t fully recovered and the five-mile remains her target.
What is Long Covid?
A voice that is gathering strength in the global community each passing day is “don’t take Omicron lightly”, even if the symptoms and infections are milder. Experts feel that with the new variant of concern Omicron, the possibility of having a Long Covid can’t be ruled out.
Long Covid or post-Covid syndrome is a condition people experience four or more weeks after being infected with the coronavirus. It is when people have Covid symptoms long after they have recovered from the illness.
A number of symptoms have been reported, the most common of which are fatigue and breathlessness. Symptoms could also range from hair loss, fitness struggles, palpitation, chest pain, joint pains and brain fog for a duration of up to almost two years.
Is Long Covid A Risk With Omicron?
Given that most of the reportage stating symptoms of Omicron are milder, many have said the infection from the new variant feels like a common cold or a flu. However, medical experts suggest otherwise.
In a White House press briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the US’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “We’ve seen some new data that roughly 30 to 40 per cent of anyone who tests positive have resulted in long Covid as well.” When asked about the Omicron variant, specifically, Fauci said he would not “expect it’s going to be any different than we have with Delta”.
America’s Centre For Disease Control & Prevention says that “Long Covid can happen to anyone who has had Covid-19, even if their illness was mild, or if they had no symptoms”.
Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Pulmonologist and Epidemiologist at PD Hinduja Hospital & MRC, Mumbai told IANS news agency, that it was still early to predict prolonged symptoms related to the new variant but in “acute phases, severe fatigue and myalgia appear to be prominent symptoms, and there might be symptoms of long Covid in a fraction of these individuals”.
He added that while infections are mild, there is no plausible reason to believe that the incidence of long Covid with Omicron will be less than what is reported with the Delta, Alpha or variants from the past.
Bruce Patterson, MD, who works for the Chronic Covid Treatment Center, believes Omicron will follow the same route as Delta in regards to Long Covid.
As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that Omicron would behave differently compared to previous variants. Covid-19 resulted in long-term symptoms early on in the pandemic, and has continued to do so through Delta.
“Over three-quarters of our patients had very mild illnesses and then went on to develop long-haul Covid,” Dr Greg Vanichkachorn, Medical Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Covid-19 Activity Rehabilitation Program in Rochester, Minnesota, told NBC News.
Omicron’s tendency to cause less serious illness may provide a false sense of security, warns Dr Vanichkachorn.
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