British Columbia

Not every Omicron case feels mild, warn some B.C. residents who have tested positive for COVID-19

Some British Columbians who have tested positive for COVID-19 say they continue to experience symptoms more than 12 days after their initial onset. The World Health Organization has warned that while the Omicron variant produces less severe disease than the Delta strain, it should not be categorized as "mild."

Uncontrolled spread of Omicron could lead to potentially more dangerous variants, says global health professor

Marie Strom, 41, and Darrin Rigo, 31, both experienced lingering COVID-19 symptoms for more than 12 days. The WHO has warned against labelling the Omicron variant as a "mild" illness. (Submitted by Marie Strom and Darrin Rigo)

When Darrin Rigo, 31, and his partner tested positive for COVID-19 in late December, they assumed because they were double vaccinated and likely caught the Omicron variant, their symptoms would ease within a few days.

But while Rigo's partner continued to improve around day seven, Rigo's condition deteriorated swiftly, and he continues to experience lingering symptoms 14 days later. 

"I regressed pretty hard ... I began having really intense sinus headaches and really bad sinus pressure, to the point that I really felt like my head was going to explode. I was tired and my brain felt like sludge," he said, speaking from his home in Prince George. 

"With the duration and the lasting effects too, I would be pressed to call this a mild illness. I do have this anxiety about everyone kind of getting it over the next month or so and I do think we're going to feel the effects of that."

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has been described by public health as near-impossible to avoid but far milder than previous COVID-19 variants.

However the World Health Organization has warned that while the Omicron variant produces less severe disease than the Delta strain, it should not be categorized as "mild."

'It hit me like a bus'

In response to the arrival of Omicron, the B.C. government has fast-tracked the province's booster program and reduced the isolation period to five days for vaccinated people testing positive without symptoms, allowing them to return to work sooner.

But a return to the office so soon after getting sick wasn't possible for 41-year-old Marie Strom, who is double vaccinated.

Strom, based in Vancouver, came down with COVID-19 symptoms on New Year's Eve which she presumes are from the Omicron variant — and which she continues to experience.

"I was just unable to move — everything hurt. It hit me like a bus. It's been 12 days and I still have fatigue. The aches and pains stayed for days but then it was just fatigue, lightheadedness when I try to walk too much," she said, adding she did not expect her symptoms would be so severe.

"A lot of people are going to be surprised by it — surprised at how sick they are, surprised at how they can't move, and can't do anything and they can't take care of their children."

Rigo and Strom say they are grateful to have avoided hospitalization thanks to vaccines, but that their experiences have made them more concerned about large numbers of people falling ill at once, especially if their symptoms last 10 days or more and they are unable to get sick leave.

"Logically it makes sense that everybody is going to get it ... but if we all get it at once that's a lot of people that are sick and not able to work for two weeks," said Strom.

'We need to make sure that not everyone gets this virus at once'

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned in early January that B.C. businesses should be prepared to see at least one third of their staff out sick with Omicron

But she signalled in a year-end interview with CBC News that the rise of the Omicron variant could shift the pandemic into a phase where it becomes endemic.

Other experts warn that letting Omicron burn through the population to build up population-level immunity is a game with an uncertain end. 

"Using the word 'endemic' — it's not necessarily a good thing. It's basically acknowledging that we're not able to eliminate this viral threat," said Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health at York University.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned in early January that B.C. businesses should be prepared to see at least one third of their staff out sick with COVID-19. (illpaxphotomatic/Shutterstock)

He says uncontrolled spread is likely to lead to more potentially dangerous variants.

"We need to make sure that not everyone gets this virus at once. Any efforts to spread out the spread of this virus, to ensure that as few people as possible get it now, will ensure that ... those who do get severely sick will have hospital care."

Thirty-five-year-old Doaa Magdy began to experience COVID-19 symptoms in early January and soon found herself gasping for air when she tried to speak in full sentences.

Magdy, who is double vaccinated, has asthma. She says she developed a blood clot in her lung that could have threatened her life if she hadn't been able to access emergency medical care. 

"I honestly think that labelling Omicron as 'mild' is a huge understatement," said Magdy, now recovering at home in Vancouver.

"I think the major thing is to understand that whatever is mild for one person is not guaranteed to be mild to the person in front of you."

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