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"I didn't know if I was going to wake up": 'Mild' omicron can be severe

Masks and other NPIs show now signs of returning
Jered Ebenreck
Jered Ebenreck
Masks and other NPIs show no signs of returning

COVID-19 surges in Europe and Asia are also starting to show up on the East Coast and Los Angeles. That means another wave of COVID-19 infections could come to New Mexico.

Late in 2021, many state and federal mask mandates and travel restrictions were lifted for the winter holidays, with many officials stating such restrictions are unlikely to be imposed again. Yet, looking back at the last wave of a supposedly “mild” variant, 150,000 people died in the U.S. Some wonder if lifting restrictions and calling omicron “mild” made things worse.

COVID-19 cases that don’t require hospitalization are classified as “mild” or “moderate” according the National Institutes of Health, but that is not how the illness felt to KUNM reporter Taylor Velazquez, who is immunocompromised and contracted the virus after 2 years of diligence and was told by her doctors to manage at home.

"I thought, when they say mild, 'Oh, I'm going to be down for maybe a couple of days,' but it was terrible. I didn't want to fall asleep because I really didn't know if I was going to wake up, unfortunately, because I couldn’t breathe. I was choking on my own spit," said Velazquez

Since Thanksgiving 2021, omicron produced a 3rd huge wave of hospitalization and death in New Mexico. Officials from Joe Biden to the head of the CDC said that vaccinated people would likely have mild symptoms with an Omicron infection

Biden said, "A case of COVID-19 for a fully vaccinated and boosted person will most likely mean no symptoms or mild ones similar to the common respiratory viruses."

Rochelle Walensky, CDC director said, "We've seen cases of omicron among those who are both vaccinated and boosted, and we believe these cases are milder or asymptomatic because of vaccine protection."

Jeffrey Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator until recently, stated, "If you are vaccinated, you could test positive. But if you do get COVID, your case will likely be asymptomatic or mild."

And in coverage of those officials, it was often that word, “mild,” that made it into the headlines. But what “mild” means to a doctor clinically is not what most people think “mild” means.  Dr. Steven Bradfute, a UNM Professor with the Center for Global Health, has been studying SARS-CoV-2.

"'Mild,' I think is a qualifier; meaning relative to other SARS-CoV-2 variants," he said. "If you compare omicron to the common cold, omicron is far more dangerous than the common cold."

The gap in the clinical term “mild” and our normal understanding of it can be dangerous when it comes to a highly transmissible virus.

"Because it's so infectious, and it spreads so quickly, that's led to a huge influx of individuals into the hospital, which is putting strain on the healthcare system," Bradfute said.

Bradfute spoke to KUNM in February during the omicron wave when New Mexico hospitals were in crisis standards of care. For Dr. Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist and fellow at the Harvard Center for Health & Human Rights, calling omicron “mild” compounded the hospitalizations and deaths since Thanksgiving.

"The word 'mild' was being used as a justification for not implementing many public health measures that we've seen earlier in the pandemic, like capacity restrictions on restaurants or mask mandates," Feldman said. "It was also used as a justification to relax certain public health measures like the CDC, cutting the isolation period in half for people who have COVID, from 102
days to five days, justifying it because among other things, the variant was 'mild.' What we saw was over 150,000 deaths through that wave."

The CDC cut isolation periods on December 27, 2021. “Mild” omicron then wreaked havoc in January. The problem in discussing the severity of COVID-19 and following the science is inherent, as Bradfute points out.

"This is a completely new virus, that there's no real human immunity to overall," he said "That doesn't happen very often for something that's pathogenic. It's been a long time since it's happened."

Nevertheless, Taylor Velazquez’s experience serves as a cautionary tale about what recovering from “mild” COVID-19 can be like.

"I'm taking breaks all day long. I feel so tired all the time," she said

She continues to struggle weeks later from a “mild” case and the science continues to evolve on what living with COVID-19 means.

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
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