The arctic rabbit pushed through the harsh cold wind, purposefully hopping nearly 250 miles. The scientists who tracked the rabbit’s journey last year don’t know why a breed of arctic rabbit, believed to prefer the warmth and safety of burrows and short travels, would venture so far from its home in Canada’s high artic. The conclusion, however, is clear: scientists don’t know as much about arctic hares as they thought they did.
I feel a kinship with this rabbit as I navigate the everchanging landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know that I need to keep moving, but I don’t know where to go. I can relate to the researchers as well. Just when I think I have a handle on COVID-19, I’m thrown for a loop. Just two months ago, I wrote an editorial titled “COVID isn’t that weird,” emphasizing that other microbes cause long-term symptoms similar to those seen in long COVID.
However, as I recently lay in my bed with my positive PCR test staring back at me, I felt like I was just starting my 250-mile journey all over again. The PCR test didn’t match the negative at-home antigen test I took the same day. I just got my booster a month ago. I wore my mask. I heard stories about breakthrough infections and false negative tests, but I didn’t think that would happen to me.
I dug into the statistical data. How much of an anomaly was I? According to the CDC at the end of December, at-home antigen tests produced a false negative result about 15% of the time. But omicron had just hit the scene. Today, discussion around how accurately at-home antigen tests can detect the omicron variant is active (to say the least). Some researchers report that the at-home test is less accurate at detecting COVID-19. One common theme that pops up is that throat swabs may be more effective at collecting SARS-CoV-2 omicron viral particles than nasal swabs (although most scientists don’t recommend defying manufacturer recommendations).
One of the most intriguing explanations for why at-home tests are less effective at detecting SARS-CoV-2 omicron viral particles is that the omicron variant infects different parts of the airway. The most interesting finding to me was that COVID-19 preferentially infects bronchial tissue over lung tissue, meaning that omicron likely sacrificed disease severity for increased infectivity. This finding put my symptoms in a new light. My symptoms were less severe and cold-like, but I felt sick for two weeks, long after my first negative test. Of course, long COVID happens, but my lingering symptoms reminded me of a condition I knew well in my childhood: bronchitis.
The cure for bronchitis is usually long rest and an inhaler, but will omicron affect asthmatic patients more than previous variants? I have asthma myself, and was terrified by COVID-19 initially, but studies surprisingly showed that asthma wasn’t a risk factor. In fact, it might correlate with protection. Since asthma is marked by inflammation of bronchial tubes, I wonder if the relationship between asthma and COVID-19 will change. As we hop through the treacherous winter storm that is omicron, I wonder how we will change our course and keep moving forward.