The highly infectious omicron variant continues to spread through the United States, but health experts are noticing a growing trend: people intentionally trying to catch the virus and get infected in order to just ‘get it over with.’
The idea of intentionally trying to catch omicron is "all the rage," Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNN.
But, according to healthcare professionals, the recent trend is risky and not advised.
"It’s never a good idea to intentionally get infected with an infectious disease," said Dr. Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Why intentionally roll the dice?"
Omicron variant symptoms may not be mild, ‘just a cold’
While it’s true that catching the omicron variant of COVID-19, as opposed to the delta variant, could result in a lower likelihood of severe illness or hospitalization, D’Souza said it’s still "a roll of the dice," even if you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
"For many people who are vaccinated — if you get exposed to coronavirus — you may not be that ill, [or] you may have flu-like symptoms, but you may have worse, and you can transmit that infection to other people who may have severe symptoms," D’Souza told FOX Television Stations Group. "Intentionally getting infected, even if you’ve been vaccinated — you can still feel really ill. You could end up needing assistance for symptoms."
Omicron variant. Left: 24 hours post infection, right: 48 hours post infection (see red fluorescent cytoplasmic antigen staining under confocal microscopy).(Photo by: MICROBIOLOGY HKU/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people infected with COVID-19 can have a wide range of symptoms — ranging from mild to severe.
Common COVID-19 symptoms may include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache and loss of taste or smell. Currently, more data is needed to know whether omicron infections cause more severe illness or death than infection from other variants.
Doctors warn not only could an individual become infected with mild to severe symptoms, but the person could also transmit the symptoms to other people, leading to higher infection rates and causing an even larger strain on hospitals.
Infecting yourself could put more stress on the healthcare system
Nearly 23% of hospitals throughout the U.S. reported critical staffing shortages on Tuesday as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, according to data released by the Department of Human and Health Services.
Out of 4,294 hospitals that reported to the HHS, 975 said they didn't have enough nurses and doctors.
"With this surge, risk of infection is higher than it’s ever been," D’Souza continued. "Right now hospitals are really overwhelmed."
The staffing shortage comes as 80.8% of all ICU beds were full on Tuesday, 30.8% of which were being used for COVID-19 patients.
"This is really a time when our entire healthcare system is stressed," D’Souza said.
Several states have implemented emergency measures to deal with the shortage, and the situation is so dire in California that the state's health department announced Saturday that nurses who test positive for COVID-19 could stay at work as long as they are asymptomatic and only interact with COVID-19 patients.
On Tuesday, 143 out of 199 hospitals in California that reported data to the HHS said they were dealing with a critical staffing shortage.
Under CDC guidelines, health care workers who test positive for COVID-19 can return to work immediately if a hospital enters "crisis" mode.
Otherwise, health care personnel are advised to wait five days to return to work as long as their symptoms are improving.
Spread of the omicron variant has the potential to worsen staffing shortages and increase supply chain challenges, which jeopardize industry, education, and other systems that are essential to maintain a functioning society and economy, the CDC explained.
Omicron variant infection could lead to ‘long haul’ symptoms
Meanwhile, infection could also lead to long-term, commonly known as ‘long haul,’ symptoms — despite mild infection.
"We have a growing number of people who have long-haul COVID," D’Souza added.
The CDC notes some people experience a range of new or ongoing symptoms that can last weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Symptoms such as difficulty breathing, fatigue, brain fog, cough, chest or stomach pains, headache, heart palpitations and muscle pains, can happen to anyone who has had COVID-19, even if the illness was mild, or if they had no initial symptoms.
While data about the Omicron variant is still fairly limited, the CDC drew conclusions about long-term effects from COVID-19 last year.
A survey that consisted of data from 3,135 adults who had been tested for COVID-19 since January 2020, found 65.9% of respondents who tested positive for the virus experienced symptoms that lasted four weeks or longer.
Omicron variant infection will not provide lasting immunity
While D‘Souza noted a few rare cases where exposing someone early to a virus when they were less likely to have severe infection could lead to protection, this is never the case with the coronavirus.
"Going out and intentionally seeking this infection does not serve the purpose of getting it over with," D’Souza continued. "It doesn’t protect you from long term from infection, because those antibodies from getting COVID don’t last that long. You will be susceptible to infection again, and you put yourself at risk for having some illness or long-term symptoms."
Moderna said last month that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant. Moderna said lab tests showed the half-dose booster shot increased by 37 times the level of so-called neutralizing antibodies able to fight omicron.
But while vaccination greatly reduces your risk of getting infected, D’Souza emphasized it’s still not reduced to zero.
"We do know that if you get infected with the coronavirus you do have some immunity, but it does not last that long," she added.
The solution to ending COVID-19 pandemic?
So, how can you protect yourself against the new, contagious omicron variant?
Many health professionals echo the same advice: Get vaccinated if you haven’t and get the booster if you’re eligible.
According to the CDC, vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging.
While getting infected with COVID-19 is still possible while fully vaccinated, your chances of severe illness decrease with three doses of the vaccine.
Other precautions include avoiding crowds where you could be exposed to the virus, social distancing and wearing a mask.
The CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of vaccination status.
"Hopefully by the Spring, we have a new normal where risk will be much lower," D’Souza continued.
Latest on omicron variant
The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa in November and has since been reported in 57 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The first U.S. case was reported on Dec. 1.
Pfizer will begin human trials of an omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine beginning in late January, a company spokesperson confirmed Monday to FOX TV Stations.
"We already have begun work on a DNA template tailored to the sequence of omicron, a critical step in the process of advancing a variant version of our vaccine if in fact we find one is needed. And also manufacturing the variant vaccine at risk, as we did for Beta and Delta before," the spokesperson continued.
The company is comparing clinical trials done on the omicron-specific vaccine thus far against current vaccines.
Pfizer also aims to have a COVID-19 vaccine that specifically targets omicron and other circulating variants available to the public by March.
FOX News contributed to this story. This story was reported from Los Angeles.