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So How “Mild” Is Omicron, Exactly?

A sign in a store window reads "Face Masks Required"

As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been ravaging the country (and the world), the silver lining seems to be that while the new variant is terrifyingly transmissible, it also seems to be milder in its effects.

In fact, that narrative is so strong that anti-vaxxers have turned it into a meme:

Anti-vaxxers glommed onto that one joke and congratulations if this is your first time seeing it, because it spread like social media wildfire in early December.

But how true is that narrative? Anecdotally speaking, I and pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to about it know far more people who have gotten breakthrough cases of COVID-19 since Omicron popped up than we ever did over the last two years. At the same time, those cases do seem to be far milder than what people were experiencing in 2020 and 2021. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been asymptomatic or reported feeling like they have a cold, and none have had to be hospitalized.

Of course, a big common factor is that all of those people I talk to have been vaccinated, and most of them are boosted as well.

So how “mild” is Omicron for the unvaccinated? According to the World Health Organization, not very, if at all.

“While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as mild,” WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference this week, per the BBC.

“Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people,” Ghebreyesus continued. “In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick, that it is overwhelming health systems around the world.”

Around the world, we’re seeing a massive spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitals are filling up, many past capacity, leaving ill and injured people (both infected with COVID and suffering from the myriad unrelated issues that send people to the hospital) without access to care.

It’s also important to remember that while a vaccinated person’s case of Omicron might feel less serious, there is still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects of this virus on our bodies, even in “mild” cases. And thinking the variant is insignificant also ignores the potentially enormous risk it still poses to immunocompromised people.

And of course, it seems safe to presume that those who are laughing at anyone concerned about the variant—those who turned it into a meme—are not vaccinated themselves, and are therefore at risk of contracting a case that feels far from mild in any sense.

In fact, the person whose Facebook post is embedded above mocking the symptoms of Omicron, was a Trump-loving, conspiracy theorist podcaster who died of COVID less than a month after posting that meme. It’s not clear if he was infected with a variant, but he became ill after attending that super-spreader right-wing conference in Texas that left attendees convinced they had been targeted by an anthrax attack.

In a press briefing last month, this is what White House COVID-⁠19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients had to say:

As we’ve explained in prior briefings, the Omicron variant is more transmissible and our medical experts anticipate it will lead to a rise in cases.

But unlike last winter, we now have the power to protect ourselves.

Our vaccines work against Omicron, especially for people who get booster shots when they are eligible. If you are vaccinated, you could test positive. But if you do get COVID, your case will likely be asymptomatic or mild.

We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this.

For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.

So, our message to every American is clear: There is action you can take to protect yourself and your family. Wear a mask in public indoor settings. Get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated, and get a booster shot when you’re eligible.

Don’t let suppositions that Omicron is “mild” stop you from taking COVID-19 safety precautions to protect yourself and others. You should be wearing a mask (you should also be updating your mask! Cloth masks are so April 2020), getting vaccinated, and continuing to encourage vaccination and masking wherever possible.

(image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.