People Are Asking if They Should Try to Get COVID Since Omicron Seems Milder—Here's Why That's a Bad Idea
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there's been a huge focus on doing what you can to try to avoid catching the virus. But with a growing number of reports that the Omicron variant typically causes a more mild form of illness, people are starting to wonder whether they should now just get infected on purpose.
What's the thinking behind this? It might be that some people assume that getting COVID-19 is inevitable and that they might as well get it now—when symptoms are "milder"—to either receive some sort of protection from the virus if they're not vaccinated or extra protection on top of vaccination.
Doctors say this is a really bad idea. "Although Omicron appears to generally cause a milder course of illness than other variants if you're infected, we cannot equate this to the common cold virus, which is relatively harmless," Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Health.
There are a few potential reasons why you really shouldn't try to catch COVID-19.
You never know how it will impact you
The CDC has pointed out that it's still not completely understood whether Omicron itself causes milder symptoms or that people are developing milder symptoms only because they have existing immunity. But yes, early research has suggested that Omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than previous variants. In a pre-print study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that people who are infected with Omicron are 66% less likely to be hospitalized than those who contracted the Delta variant of the virus. Another study that has not yet been peer-reviewed, this one from Imperial College London, found that people who are infected with Omicron were 15% to 20% less likely to go the ER with severe COVID-19 symptoms and 40% less likely to be hospitalized with the virus.
But Dr. Russo stresses that this isn't the case for everyone. "COVID-19 still has the potential to be lethal and kill individuals, with the unvaccinated, people who might not have responded optimally to the vaccine, and seniors being at greatest risk," he says. A recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, while it's rare to develop severe COVID-19 and die from the virus when you've completed your primary vaccination series, people who are aged 65 and up, those who are immunosuppressed, and people with underlying health conditions are at a higher risk of serious COVID.
CDC data show that COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in the US since early December. And while deaths from the virus haven't increased at the same rapid rate (likely due to vaccination rates, per Dr. Russo), they've still increased during that same time period.
Even if you're otherwise healthy, it's still possible to develop a serious form of COVID-19, Dr. Russo says. "All bets are off with this virus," he points out.
'Mild' is a relative term
Doctors typically use the term "mild" to describe cases of COVID-19 that don't end up in the hospital, but Dr. Russo notes that it doesn't mean you'll be feeling great if your illness doesn't progress to the point. "The symptoms are not exactly trivial," he says.
Per the CDC, you could end up experiencing things like:
So if you get COVID, you may not end up just hanging out in bed, blissfully catching up on Netflix shows you've missed. You could be feeling pretty lousy.
Your life will be disrupted for at least a week
According to the latest guidance from the CDC, people with COVID-19 should isolate for at least five days. If you're asymptomatic at that point or if your symptoms are getting better (ie, you feel better and you're without a fever for 24 hours), it's OK to leave isolation provided you wear a mask around others for five more days.
That means you'll be away from work and everything else going on in your life for at least five days, possibly longer. "While it's true that most people will eventually contract COVID, especially in light of Omicron's immune evasive properties, it's not something someone should actively seek out because of its disruptive effects," infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. "This is especially true in the current context where so many people sick—even mildly—at one time makes it very hard for society to function."
There's long COVID to consider
Omicron is still too new to know how it will impact people over the long term, but Dr. Russo stresses that long COVID (where you develop lingering symptoms or health issues as a result of having the virus) is still a concern.
Symptoms of long COVID can vary by person, but the CDC lists the following as possible signs:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities (also known as post-exertional malaise)
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as "brain fog")
- Chest or stomach pain
- Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)
- Joint or muscle pain
- Pins-and-needles feeling
- Sleep problems
- Dizziness on standing (lightheadedness)
- Mood changes
- Change in smell or taste
- Changes in menstrual period cycles
"If you lose your sense of taste and smell, develop diabetes, and have severe fatigue where you need to take naps every day, it can be totally disruptive to your lifestyle," Dr. Russo says.
You'll likely infect others, who may not do as well as you
You won't know you have COVID-19 until you develop symptoms of the virus or test positive, and that means you'll likely be out spreading the virus to others in the meantime, Dr. Adalja says.
The CDC points out that that majority of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, happens in the one to two days before you develop symptoms and the two to three days after. So, while you think you're OK and COVID-free, you could be passing the virus on to others, including people like your parents, grandparents, and friends with underlying health conditions.
"One needs to be very careful not to pass on an infection to a high-risk individual who might not have such an 'easy' time with it," Dr. Adalja says.
"At the end of the day," Dr. Russo says, "the best strategy is not to get infected."
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