Many new Covid-19 patients in S'pore say they have mild flu-like symptoms

Experts have warned that the sheer number of Omicron-fuelled Covid-19 cases can still overwhelm health systems. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - With the highly contagious Omicron variant of Covid-19 spreading through the community here, it seems that everywhere you look, there is someone who knows another person who has caught the coronavirus.

While it has become harder to avoid the virus due to the surge in Covid-19 cases, many of those infected have developed just mild flu-like symptoms, though unpleasant.

A check with 12 people who got infected in the past two months showed that just one person lost her sense of smell and taste for a while. Some of them did not even know they had caught Covid-19 until they tested positive for it.

Experts have warned that the sheer number of Omicron-fuelled Covid-19 cases can still overwhelm health systems.

Nevertheless, many people now appear a lot less fearful, as it becomes clear that the Omicron variant - while more transmissible - causes less severe disease compared with the Delta variant.

A 34-year-old male executive who had a sore throat and tested positive for Covid-19 at home said he simply took some lozenges and paracetamol. He did not see a general practitioner (GP).

Sore throat was a symptom for 11 of the 12 people The Straits Times spoke to. One person did not have any symptoms. Other common symptoms include fever, cough and headache.

Mr Marcus Chua, who is 28 and self-employed, said his throat hurt a lot, especially when he coughed. He also had a blocked nose, phlegm, headache, fatigue and no appetite - symptoms which he said took days to appear.

A few others told ST that their illness was not initially picked up by an antigen rapid test (ART). These tests may not be able to pick up the virus when the viral load in a person's body is very low early in the infection.

In mid-January, Mr Chua had come into contact with someone who later tested positive for Covid-19. At first, the daily ARTs that he did all turned out negative, he said.

A 25-year-old female business executive also had the same experience. She suspected she had Covid-19 because she felt unwell after sharing weights with an unmasked person at the gym who later tested positive for Covid-19.

But the ARTs that she did initially, and another ART done at a GP clinic, were all negative. "The doctor even reassured me that I didn't have Covid-19," she said.

After consulting her overseas friends, she said, she did a throat swab using an ART kit. The result was positive and she proceeded to self-isolate.

"Having Covid-19 felt like someone was scratching the back of my throat with a knife; I didn't expect it to be this painful," she said.

A 25-year-old civil servant who caught Covid-19 last December, after meeting up with her partner a day before he tested positive, advises caution when one is unwell, even though an ART result may be negative.

Then, there are those whose Covid-19 infections turned out to be non-events.

A 64-year-old working professional, who had taken his booster jab last September, found out he had Covid-19 on the fourth day of a hospital stay last month for an ulcer in his small intestine. 

He had tested negative on the day of admission. "I was asymptomatic throughout - no fever, runny nose or other flu symptoms," he said.

He did have a slight occasional cough, but "attributed it to a scratchy throat when I was on the drip for my ulcer-related issues".

He was discharged after 10 days in the hospital, but his Covid-19 infection meant that he had to isolate at home for three more days till day 10 of the infection.

A 23-year-old said she experienced a temporary loss of taste and smell - a symptom that seemed to be reported more often last year.

While it is not known if these 12 people had contracted Omicron, this variant accounts for the majority of new cases today.

Whether it is the Omicron or Delta variant, most people still transmit the virus right around the time they develop symptoms, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 technical lead, said at a Feb 1 press briefing.

The infectious period is from about two days before symptoms appear, and through the first five to nine days of the illness, if the symptoms are mild, she said.

"It can be longer if you have severe disease, and it could be even longer if you are immunocompromised," she added.

"For Omicron, we do know that people who are asymptomatic can spread the virus, but with most of the people who transmit it, it is really right around the time of the onset of symptoms."

Data from the Ministry of Health (MOH) shows that as at Saturday, there were 1,068 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, of whom 23 needed intensive care.

Local Covid-19 cases here trebled to more than 13,000 on Friday from the day before, though with 92 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and 59 per cent boosted, most infected persons have mild or no symptoms and are recovering at home.

A 26-year-old executive who developed flu-like symptoms when he was infected said he feels "less threatened" by Covid-19, as he now has natural immunity.

Another 26-year-old also cited natural immunity when saying she will hold off getting a booster jab.

MOH said late last month that a booster dose will confer longer protection into the future.

It added that an infection episode can be considered a booster dose if a person prefers not to get the extra jab, provided he has seen a doctor - so that the infection will be in MOH's medical records - or has the infection recorded when entering Singapore.

A positive result on a self-administered ART does not count as a record of infection, which means that such patients will still have to take a booster dose to extend the validity period of their full vaccination status beyond the initial 270 days. This policy starts on Feb 14.

Dr Low Lee Yong and his pregnant wife Meek Low both caught Covid-19 last week, and had to deal with worries about how to isolate themselves and keep their one-year-old daughter and helper safe. 

It is best to have a contingency plan, even if you think you will not catch Covid-19, he said.

  • Additional reporting by Gena Soh and Syarafana Shafeeq

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