News Release

News Headlines Downplaying Severity of Omicron Variant

Since the Omicron variant began to dominate cases in the United States in late 2021, mainstream media have routinely characterized it as “mild” compared with the Delta variant’s severity. But as Katherine J. Wu pointed out in The Atlantic last month, “COVID-19 doesn’t have to be medically severe to take a toll.” Experts say that Omicron can worsen chronic health issues and even asymptomatic cases can lead to long-COVID.

JUSTIN FELDMAN, jfeldman@hsph.harvard.edu, @jfeldman_epi

Feldman is a Health and Human Rights Fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. 

Feldman wrote that when using a news database in mid-January, he found more than 700 U.S. news article headlines emphasizing that Omicron is “mild.”

Today, he said: “When Omicron first hit the U.S., pundits and government officials painted a misleading picture that downplayed the severe public health consequences of the variant. The truth is that even while people infected with Omicron are less likely to die compared to Delta, it is hardly mild. Omicron’s properties of extremely high transmissibility and immune evasion led to well over 100,000 deaths between Biden’s Dec. 21, 2021 White House speech and today. The narrative of ‘mildness’ provided cover for government to weaken the few remaining public health protections, such as reducing isolation time for infected workers from 10 days to 5. CDC’s data also shows that Black and Indigenous people were hospitalized at far higher rates than white people during this period.”