People with Omicron don’t gasp for air as much as with other variants, but are getting ‘really sick in a different way,’ an ER doctor says

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A patient on trolley is transferred from ambulance to hospital.

New York City has more than 5,000 COVID-19 hospital admissions as of January 3, official data shows.Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

  • Omicron is making people sick in a different way to the original virus, an ER doctor has said.

  • The variant exacerbates other medical conditions and there’s “so much of it,” Dr. Craig Spencer said.

  • “The nightmare is over, but this is scary too,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

COVID-19 caused by Omicron is “making people really sick in a different way” to the original virus, a leading ER doctor has said.

Dr. Craig Spencer, associate professor in Emergency Medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center, tweeted Tuesday that fewer patients were “gasping for air” and requiring oxygen — in comparison with the first wave in March 2020.

“But there’s just SO much of it and it’s impacting patients in different ways,” Spencer said, referring to his experience during an ER shift in New York City.

Spencer said “record numbers” of people with COVID-19 were attending the ER, as well as “extremely high” numbers of non-COVID-19 patients. “During the first surge, COVID was the only thing we saw in our ERs,” he said.

According to Spencer, COVID-19 was making pre-existing medical conditions worse. For example, it could trigger a life-threatening condition, called diabetic ketoacidosis, in people with diabetes, he said.

Older people with COVID-19 can become too weak to get out of bed, can’t walk and can’t leave hospital, he said.

“What’s also different now is those COVID cases are often in beds next to patients who’ve done everything to avoid the virus, and for whom an infection might have a dramatic toll,” Spencer added. “The cancer patient on chemotherapy. Those immunocompromised or severely sick with something else,” he said.

There were 5,495 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in New York City, as of Monday, official statistics show — four times the amount from two weeks ago and higher than any point since May 2020.

“The nightmare is over. But this is scary too,” he said.

In the UK — where Omicron is the most common variant — two-thirds of COVID-19 patients were hospitalized directly with COVID-19, according to NHS England data released Friday.

The rest were a “mix” of people with: COVID-19 making existing conditions worse, COVID-19 picked up coincidentally, or people stuck in hospital, Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, said on Twitter at the time.

It is still unclear if Omicron itself causes different symptoms to other variants or whether immunity from previous infections or vaccinations stops it from becoming more severe.

Spencer said that most of the sickest patients with COVID-19 were unvaccinated, even with Omicron. “If you haven’t been vaccinated or boosted yet, now is really the time. It makes a difference,” he said.

Symptoms according to vaccine status

Elsewhere, Mucio Kit Delgado, assistant professor in Emergency Medicine at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center emergency department, said on Twitter on Monday that he had seen a “strikingly consistent pattern” in symptoms based on vaccination status.

Delgado said that he “hardly saw anyone who had gotten a booster because if they caught COVID-19 they’re likely at home doing fine or having regular cold/flu-like symptoms.”

Meanwhile, when people were vaccinated but not boosted, he said he found many patients were “wiped out, dehydrated and febrile.” Delgado said that people who were older than 55 or had other medical problems were often admitted overnight for intravenous fluids and “supportive care”, but usually went home within a day or two.

Finally, Delgado said that in his experience, unvaccinated people were “the folks that get sick and had to be hospitalized because they need oxygen.” “Some even younger than me,” he said.

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