This is the New Normal … And It’s Okay
Errol Buntuyan, M.D., FAAFP
The month of May has gone by fast. The gathering events last month like Mother’s Day, Memorial Day weekend gatherings and graduation festivities have fostered the exposure and spread of COVID over the last few weeks. We find ourselves at the beginning of June again in the midst of a surge of COVID cases. On Maui, we have a 15.6 percent positivity rate, with Kaua‘i and Honolulu near 25 percent positivity rates in the first week of June. The Omicron variant and its subtypes have been percolating in our community since January and the percent positivity rates are back up but this time it feels different. People in our community are better prepared and are getting used to this new normal.
The good news is that the hospitalization and death rates due to COVID symptoms have not significantly gone up during this latest surge. The combination of vaccinations and boosters, home testing, isolation if exhibiting symptoms, advanced medicinal treatments and a milder Omicron variant have all contributed to spare us from the severe illness we were seeing back in 2020 and 2021. Most symptoms are mild with fever, chills, fatigue, headache and cough that last only for a few days. Many that are infected feel the symptoms are like a common cold. Influenza rates have gone up since the end of the mask mandates and some people feel the symptoms of Omicron are milder than the flu. Because of all this, businesses remain open, events are continuing to be scheduled, people are going to gatherings, parties and festivities. We are living our lives with COVID amongst us.
People who were infected with Delta or other strains in 2020 or 2021 are now getting infected again with the current Omicron variant subtypes. Omicron is highly contagious, so it is highly likely exposure can be from almost anywhere. Recent data shows that people who are infected with Omicron can get a rebound infection with Omicron within days of recovering. Though a milder overall illness, Omicron can still cause an annoying course of symptoms lasting for weeks. Children are often getting the mildest symptoms but still capable of passing COVID along to each other and their family members. Boosters for children 5 years old and above are now available. COVID vaccines for children 12 months and older will most likely be approved in the upcoming months.
There is once again a focus on Long COVID in the news. Long COVID is the persistence of symptoms for four or more weeks. The symptoms are similar to the acute phase (fever, cough, headache, body aches) that includes brain fog and stomach pain but newer studies are linking up to two hundred symptoms to Long COVID. Long COVID can affect up to 30 percent of people who have been infected and can last for up to two years. With the amount of people getting Omicron, we expect the number of Long COVID cases to also increase in the next few months. For now, there currently is no cure for Long COVID, just symptomatic support. The best way to avoid Long COVID is to not get COVID infected.
It seems our community and our world has adapted to living with COVID as we move from surge after surge. People are living their lives, going to gatherings, being social with family and friends and choosing on their own if they want to wear masks. People are more mindful of their risks of exposure before deciding to go to events. People already know the etiquette around COVID exposure and infection.
When symptoms develop, many get tested with a rapid home test or go to a venue with PCR testing. If the test is positive, many choose to isolate for at least five days, seek treatment if they are high risk with medications like monoclonal antibody or Paxlovid. People should return to work or to their daily activities once symptoms resolve and they feel better.
People should be keeping up to date with the latest vaccine boosters or should await to receive them when they become eligible. Medical establishments, the CDC, State and County health departments readily report any new developments on strains and treatments to stay informed. We are increasingly familiar with how to behave and react with COVID ensconced in our lives. This is our new normal.
We move forward into the summer months of 2022. June is Pride Month, during which we celebrate diversity. The month of June also has many days to celebrate like Father’s Day, Juneteenth, National Children’s Day and Kamehameha Day. We again have plenty to look forward to this summer as we emerge out of the pandemic living our lives with COVID. The ebb and flow of COVID strains and new surges of infection will no doubt continue. The fact we survived the challenges of COVID these last two years only instills hope we can withstand any obstacles coming our way. We will be OK.
Errol Buntuyan, M.D. is a Family Medicine Practitioner and the Physician in Charge of Maui Primary Care at Kaiser Permanente. Born in Quezon City and raised in Southern California, he has been practicing medicine on Maui since 2007. Dr. Buntuyan promotes whole food, plant based nutrition, regular physical activity, stress mindfulness and sleep hygiene as keys to optimum health and wellness. He enjoys cooking, playing tennis and travel.