As the Omicron variant spreads across the globe and the US, where cases are doubling roughly every two days, the importance of identifying early signs of infection are more crucial than ever, especially as holiday travel starts to ramp up.
While early evidence suggests Omicron appears to sicken people less severely than those who contract the Delta variant, the most commonly reported symptoms are cough, fatigue, congestion and a runny nose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new variant, first identified in South Africa on Nov. 24, has also been linked to causing intense night sweats and mild muscle aches, but appears to differ from the Delta strain, which generally causes a high fever and a loss or change in smell or taste.
Omicron’s impact on smell and taste appears to be uncommon, infectious disease specialists told NBC News while noting the preliminary findings were not based on scientific studies.
“Anecdotal reports represent just one person,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York School of Public Health. “We have to take them with a grain of salt.”
Other experts said it’s “clear” that Omicron tends to lead to milder infections, especially in vaccinated people who have also received booster shots.
“What we haven’t seen yet is a substantial body of information about what Omicron will do in unvaccinated people,” Dr. Williams Schaffner at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee told NBC News.
Omicron appears to replicate roughly 70 times faster than Delta in the respiratory tract, but could lead to less severe infections because of slow growth in the lungs, according to a study released last week by the University of Hong Kong.
Those findings, which still need to be peer-reviewed, could explain why Omicron may spread faster between people than previous strains despite its lower likelihood of leading to severe illness or death.
An unvaccinated man from the Houston area is believed to be the first person in the US to die from the Omicron variant, health officials said Monday. The man in his 50s had underlying health conditions and survived an earlier bout of the virus.
Omicron appears to have shorter incubation times than other variants, with symptoms appearing in as little as three days compared to four to six with Delta and the original strain, the New York Times reported.
That may be because the variant’s mutations help it latch onto and evade cells, said Dr. Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in Manhattan.
Data from South Africa last week showed the risk of hospitalization for adults with Omicron was 29% lower when compared to the first virus wave. Children, however, were 20% more likely to need a hospital stay, the newspaper reported.
“There are people who get severe illness from Omicron,” Javaid told the Times. “It is still a coronavirus. We’re still in a pandemic.”
Omicron has been detected in at least 89 countries, with at least seven deaths reported in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, meanwhile, warned Americans Tuesday that the variant was spreading at a “truly unprecedented” pace — with COVID-19 cases doubling about every two days in the US, and it is overtaking Delta as the dominant strain.