Despite what some news reports have implied, the Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 isn’t necessarily “milder” than previous incarnations of the virus, according to various experts who sounded the alarm in an article at MedPage Today.
It’s worth noting that so far, the impact of COVID-19 on people with diabetes has been anything but mild — with much higher rates of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit (ICU), and death than in the general population. This is especially true for people with diabetes who have a history of less than ideal blood glucose control. So even if Omicron is somehow less dangerous than previous versions of the virus, that doesn’t mean it won’t cause severe disease in people with diabetes at a rate much higher than the numbers for the general population suggest. Right now, it’s still too early to know with confidence how Omicron affects people with diabetes differently — if it does — compared with people without diabetes. But on an individual level, the answer is likely to depend on a range of factors, including your blood glucose control, duration of diabetes, age, general health, and COVID-19 vaccination status.
To get cutting-edge diabetes news, strategies for blood glucose management, nutrition tips, healthy recipes, and more delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our free newsletters!
The severity of Omicron
In the latest article, health experts make a number of points about the severity of Omicron. One is that even if the virus is less likely to cause severe illness in an individual — something that may not be true for all people — its heightened contagiousness means that for the population as a whole, the effects could be just as severe as in previous “peaks” of the pandemic. And, in fact, that’s exactly what has happened recently — many hospitals across the country are at capacity amid a shortage of health care workers who are out sick with COVID-19, which has an impact on care for all hospital patients. And last week, a record number of people in the United States — including a record number of children — were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Health experts also point out that while unvaccinated people are in much greater danger from Omicron, vaccinated people aren’t completely safe — in fact, they may be at greater risk for infection than with previous viral variants. Thats because Omicron is better at escaping the immune system’s defenses than the previous versions were. What’s more, previous infection with COVID-19 may not protect people against Omicron as much as it did for previous viral variants — as shown by the fact that the reinfection rate for Omicron is about five times higher than it was for the Delta variant of COVID-19. And so-called “breakthrough” infections of vaccinated people aren’t just causing mild illness, either — one cardiologist pointed out that his hospital is being flooded with fully vaccinated older people who develop severe heart problems in the wake of an Omicron infection.
At the same time, the unprecedented number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 means that there is a shortage of monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs — making the infection harder to treat in many people who are hospitalized. And even if most of these hospitalized people don’t die of COVID-19, there’s often a long road to recovery that involves ongoing symptoms — sometimes disabling ones — for months. It’s still too early to know if Omicron is any more or less likely to cause “long COVID” — ongoing symptoms like fatigue, loss of taste and smell, and brain fog. For previous viral variants, even mild cases of COVID-19 have been shown to cause these lasting symptoms.
What this all adds up to, health experts say, is that people with a heightened risk for severe COVID-19 — including people with diabetes — should remain vigilant and take precautions to reduce their risk for COVID-19. This includes not just getting vaccinated and boosted, but also wearing an effective mask in indoor public places and limiting or avoiding gatherings that involve more than a few people.
Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read our latest COVID-19 updates.