Don't Be Too Cavalier About Omicron — Long Covid Is Still a Real Risk

When President Joe Biden took the podium on the afternoon of Dec. 21 to address the country amid the massive surge in Covid-19 cases from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, he promised to give it to us straight. But despite providing additional details and updates to his Covid-19 action plan, and making a World War II-era plea to unvaccinated individuals (“Honest to God, I believe it’s your patriotic duty [to get vaccinated]”), he didn’t deliver.

Taking great pains to avoid mixed messaging on the effectiveness of the existing vaccines — which, to be clear, are extremely effective in preventing severe illness and death — Biden stressed that “we should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked.” He noted that because the variant spreads so easily, some fully vaccinated (and boosted) people will experience breakthrough Covid infections — “potentially in high numbers” — but that they have “much less reason to worry.” It was almost as if he was suggesting a triple-dose could be a substitute for caution. 

But in reality, the president’s message didn’t give it to anyone straight, or even accurately. That’s because Long Covid — a dizzyingly lengthy list of new, returning, or ongoing health problems some people experience for months (and in some cases, close to two years) following their initial infection — wasn’t mentioned as one of the potential outcomes of Omicron infection. In fact, Biden didn’t mention Long Covid at any point during his speech. Here’s why that’s a problem.

It’s still unclear how many people infected by the novel coronavirus end up developing Long Covid, but the researchers behind a recent study published in the journal JAMA Network Open estimate that at least 50 percent of those who survive their initial illness go on to experience a number of physical, psychological, and neurological symptoms for a minimum of six months. 

Like Covid-19 itself, the symptoms of Long Covid can range from being relatively mild (e.g. becoming out of breath more easily, sleep disruptions, intermittent joint pain) to those that are so severe they leave some people unable to work — like debilitating exhaustion, loss of mobility, cognitive impairment, and drastic personality changes.

At this point, it’s not yet known whether Covid infections caused by Omicron can result in Long Covid, but experts, including Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Dr. Anthony Fauci, have indicated that it appears to be likely. Speaking at a White House press briefing on Dec. 17, Fauci said that while there’s not currently enough information on Omicron and Long Covid, he “would not expect it’s going to be any different” than previous variants, including Delta, which have left an estimated 9.4 million Americans with the chronic condition.

The CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) have both recognized and defined Long Covid. Its existence is not up for debate. And, as the name suggests, it is a potential outcome of a Covid-19 infection. So why, given all we know about Long Covid and its sometimes-devastating effects, would Biden (or his speechwriters) leave it out entirely?

Perhaps the president was trying to avoid scaring people — particularly those who are vaccinated — by mentioning the possibility that even breakthrough Covid infections could leave them with lingering symptoms, neurological challenges, and/or a new disability for a yet-to-be-determined amount of time. Or maybe he thought that the week of Christmas wasn’t the most appropriate time to discuss this largely overlooked byproduct of the pandemic that has disrupted, and, in some cases, ruined so many lives. 

But if Biden was looking to get tough on those who refuse to get vaccinated, instead of telling them they have an obligation to their country to get their shots, he should have shared a few of the many symptoms of Long Covid, including but not limited to hair loss, erectile dysfunction, disruptive digestive issues (to put it mildly), and an array of rashes and other skin conditions.   

The glaring omission of Long Covid in the president’s address may also prevent some people from making an informed decision about their health. If someone is still on the fence about getting vaccinated against Covid-19, and instructed to carefully consider the potential risks of attending holiday gatherings with family and friends, it’s imperative that they’re aware of and understand all — not just a select few — of the possible outcomes. 

This far into the pandemic, we should be well beyond the point of thinking that Covid-19 infections end in either a full recovery or death. When Biden failed to mention Long Covid during his remarks on the Omicron variant, he further perpetuated that false dichotomy. 

When he reiterated that if a vaccinated person does end up with a breakthrough infection, they’re most likely to have a mild case of Covid-19, he neglected to mention that mild, or even asymptomatic infections can result in Long Covid. And when the president told the American people that if they “are vaccinated and follow precautions” they should “feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays” gathered with family and friends, he may have prompted some people to take a much bigger risk than they realize.

Politically, Biden’s failure to bring up Long Covid from his speech makes sense. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy who tells people who are triple vaxxed and have done everything right that they’re also potentially at risk of ending up with long-term, sometimes-debilitating health conditions after a breakthrough infection. Comparatively, raising his voice and scolding unvaccinated people is easy.

But, as someone who has been living with Long Covid for nearly 21 months (and no approval rating to worry about), allow me to give it to you, as the president says, “straight in the shoulder.” You really don’t want Long Covid, and should do what you can to avoid being infected with the virus in the first place — including staying home as much as you can over the holidays. When you weigh the risks of benefits of your plans, be sure to include “potential for life-ruining chronic illness with no cure or end in sight” to your list of risks.

Based on my own experience, and my conversations with dozens of others living with Long Covid, I can tell you that having our concerns dismissed by healthcare professionals, our employers, and even our families has taken a tremendous toll on both our physical and mental health. On top of dealing with our painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes bizarre symptoms, it’s hard to find the energy to try to convince people that Long Covid is real, and not something that’s all in our head. In his speech on Tuesday, Biden had the opportunity to both educate the American public about the existence of Long Covid, and validate the experiences of those of us who have been living with it for more than a year. Unfortunately for us, it was another dismissal.

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