A 'mild' COVID-19 case just means you don't end up in the hospital, epidemiologists caution

There was good news and bad news about COVID-19 and its Omicron variant on Tuesday.

U.S. health officials said the new variant is spreading fast and will soon become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S., demoting Delta, but Pfizer announced that its new antiviral drug Paxlovid has proved extremely effective at keeping high-risk COVID-19 patients alive and out of the hospital, and appears to work against the Omicron variant. A South African study found that two doses of Pfizer's vaccine was only 33 percent effective against Omicron infection and 70 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and death, but also that the illness from this new variant appears more mild than with previous strains.

Even if Omicron proves to be more mild, "'mild' doesn't mean 'no big deal,'" Joanne Kenen cautions in Politico's Nightly newsletter. "Mild Covid-19 can still cause a whole lot of illness, a whole lot of economic disruption, a whole lot of strain on health care systems around the world." For one thing, if the new variant were 75 percent less deadly than previous strains but infected four times as many people, "the same number of lives would be lost," she notes. And for people who recover, nobody knows about Omicron and lingering long-COVID symptoms.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Also, "'mild' to an epidemiologist doesn't mean the same thing that 'mild' indicates to you and me," Kenen adds. "Mild to us means not feeling so bad. Mild to the public health professional just means you aren't in the hospital."

A virus "can knock you off your feet and debilitate you for a few days and we'd still call it mild," said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the American Society of State and Territorial Health Officials. "Mild" covers everything from the sniffles to being bedridden with fever and aches, adds Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University. "Even if I don't get super-sick, thanks to the vaccines," she told Nightly, "I can't afford to take 10 days off of work." Read more at Politico.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.