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Differences in symptoms, severity between omicron and delta COVID variants

The variants hone in on certain places, especially the lungs. That's where doctors see a difference between omicron and delta's effects.

LEWISTON, Maine — The omicron variant of COVID is spreading faster than delta but generally leads to less severe outcomes for people who catch it.

Doctors in Maine are warning people that "milder" symptoms are simply that: milder, not "mild."

"Milder compared to what? Milder for whom?" Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a news conference on Feb. 9.

Complicating that answer is a person's age, underlying conditions, and more.

So what makes omicron "milder" than delta?

"It has to do with the places the virus tends to in the body and infect," Shah said. 

He said one strong indication is where in the lungs the virus attacks.

"The delta variant was thought to affect the lower part of the lungs in the respiratory system and cause disease that was harder to treat. And as a result of that, a lot more severe," Shah said. "Omicron is thought to infect the upper part of the lungs and respiratory systems just a little bit more, that symptoms may be milder."

Bates College professor of microbiology, Dr. Lori Banks, recently recovered from COVID but was not told if she had a variant. Genomic sequencing from about 5.5 percent of Maine's positive test results shows 98 percent of cases in Maine now are omicron.

"It is no joke. I can tell you from personal experience now that the body aches are some of the worst flu symptoms you've ever had," Banks said. "When we say milder, it's like not on a ventilator, not life-threatening."

Shah and Banks said omicron is more infectious and replicates faster. It also takes fewer viral particles to get someone sick.

"It's sort of like a three-dimensional magnet. What we see when those interactions are really tight is that it takes fewer viral particles to actually make you sick," Banks said. "You don't want to bet on it just feeling like a really bad cold, and then you end up on a ventilator."

"Something that may be milder on a person-to-person level doesn't necessarily mean it'll translate to fewer hospitalizations and deaths," Shah said.

Shah added during the omicron surge in December 2021, the Maine counties with the most deaths were those with lower vaccination rates, like Oxford and Franklin.

"We're now seeing really clear data suggesting that vaccination rates, particularly low vaccination rates, unfortunately, correlate with high death rates," Shah said.

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