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Overlapping symptoms may cause confusion as Omicron surges; LSU Health infectious disease expert says testing is critical

It is the time of year for other respiratory viruses
Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 6:14 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Is it COVID-19 or something else?

As people endure hours of waiting to get free COVID-19 testing, the question is whether symptoms they have are actually related to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus or another respiratory virus. And an LSU Health infectious disease expert says there is overlap in some symptoms and Omicron is not mirroring other strains of the virus.

Dr. Julio Figueroa is LSU Health New Orleans’ infectious diseases chief.

“So, we’re learning more about Omicron, in terms of how it presents. With Delta it seems like there was a lot more severe disease relatively early on and a lot more of the lower respiratory tract stuff. What we’re finding here, at least in our experiences, more of the upper respiratory type thing, kind of flu-like illness with muscle aches and things like that, maybe headache being prominent in some individuals,” said Figueroa.

He said some patients show up with symptoms that are common with allergies.

“Other individuals will present with kind of worsening of post-nasal drip and those sorts of things, maybe a little sore throat which would maybe go with allergies worsening and so that’s what’s going to make this one a little bit more difficult to kind of figure out what’s going on because you have different presentations throughout different individuals who are getting it, so that’s why everybody’s getting tested,” said Figueroa.

He said not everyone who contracts COVID infection develops a fever.

“It’s definitely not universal but it does occur in some individuals with that. So, they kind of have the classic flu-like illness,” he said.

And the loss of taste and smell appears to be less among people with the Omicron variant which is now the dominant strain in Louisiana and the U.S.

“We’ve not really seen a lot of that as a big symptom as opposed to Delta for example.”

Omicron which spreads easily is a factor in the midst of cold and flu season.

Dr. Jeffrey Elder is Director of Emergency Management at LCMC Health which operates a number of hospitals in the New Orleans area.

“It is winter, we expect to see flu, we are seeing some flu, we haven’t seen huge numbers of flu this season which again is why we continue to push people to get their flu shot as well,” said Elder.

Figueroa agrees flu vaccinations are important every year.

“We definitely have seen the flu and we’ve seen other respiratory viruses RSV, Metapneumovirus, he said.

And allergies have not disappeared. According to Pollen.com ragweed pollen is active in parts of Louisiana. It is a confluence of things that can make self-diagnosis of COVID-19 hard to achieve.

“I think it’s going to be more difficult to kind of figure out what’s the cause of it without testing. However, what I would say is the best thing to do is to assume that you are; if you can get a rapid test that’s great, if you can’t, you know, I would assume that you are so that we reduce the amount of transmission as much as possible,” said Figueroa. And with cases of the Omicron variant surging doctors say it is better to wear a high-quality mask rather than a cloth one.

“The kind of cloth mask and those sorts of things we’re trying to get away from with this particular variant because it’s so contagious, so something either like this which would be even better if I had a secondary covering to keep it right close against my face or using a KN95 or an N95 mask that is a little bit more protective against Omicron,” Figueroa.

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