The omicron variant could cause a lot of confusion this holiday season as cold and flu cases are on the rise. The new strain causes symptoms similar to those of the other two conditions.
Before omicron came, people could breathe a sigh of relief when experiencing symptoms typical of mild allergies or a minor cold. But with the new variant around, there is a growing concern that the symptoms could be telling of a COVID-19 infection.
University of Chicago Medicine chief infectious disease epidemiologist Emily Landon told New York Post that making risk assessments based on symptoms would be much harder to do because omicron’s symptoms could be mistaken for a cold or flu.
Landon further said that many people could jump to erroneous conclusions because they would think that “their symptoms only fit the category of a regular cold, not the coronavirus.”
The holiday season is going to be dominated by the omicron variant after health experts confirmed that it has taken over the delta variant in the U.S. in a matter of weeks since it was first detected in South Africa. During this season, the common cold and flu are quite common.
“The symptoms are now like a Venn diagram where all the circles are overlapping,” Landon said of the overlap in the symptoms of omicron with the cold and flu except for the loss of taste and smell, which is still specific to COVID-19.
Experts are worried that the public, especially the vaccinated people, may think that they are just suffering from a cold because of a false sense of confidence in the face of omicron, which is known to cause mild illness.
Though considered the most contagious, the new variant of concern causes milder illness than the other strains based on preliminary studies from South Africa and the U.K., as per the BBC.
Medical experts said the newly emerged variant has a higher affinity for targeting the upper respiratory epithelium or the airways instead of the lungs. This could explain why people infected with this strain “sniffle more, sneeze more or be congested,” said Landon.
“Those who are vaccinated and have minor cold-like symptoms are way less likely to stay home now, and they can spread it to people who can get pretty sick with it. The risk differentiation seems pretty big right now,” the epidemiologist added.
For Philip J. Landrigan, a Boston College epidemiologist and public health physician, the best solution is to get tested regardless of the symptoms they have. This way, they can be sure that they are not carrying the virus to their homes or spreading it to other people, including their loved ones, who could be vulnerable to the disease.
“The reason to get tested now is for your peace of mind, but an even more important reason is if you’re going to a gathering and there are vulnerable people. If you’re going to be going into that kind of gathering, it’s not about yourself, it’s about protecting the people around you,” Landrigan said.