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Coronavirus Updates, News

What You Should Know About the Omicron COVID-19 Variant

Just a few months after the Delta variant caused an increase in COVID-19 cases, the Omicron variant is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in the United States. Atrium Health vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist, Dr. Katie Passaretti, and Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist infectious diseases expert, Dr. Christopher Ohl, share more about what we know so far.

Editor’s Note: This information is current as of January 10, 2022.

All viruses mutate (or change) over time, and COVID-19 is no exception. When a mutation changes how the virus behaves – for example, making it more contagious – the new version is known as a variant or strain. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen multiple variants of the virus, including the recent, more contagious Delta variant. Now, the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly and will soon overtake Delta as the dominant variant in the United States, even as we are still learning more about it. Atrium Health vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist, Dr. Katie Passaretti and Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist infectious diseases expert, Dr. Christopher Ohl, explain what we do – and don’t – know so far.

It’s Still Being Studied

The Omicron variant is a fairly highly mutated variant first discovered in South Africa. It has more than 30 mutations, far more than the highly transmissible Delta variant. We’ve only been dealing with it for a few weeks but have already seen tremendous impact in South Africa, the United Kingdom and now here in the United States. While we are still learning more about it, we’ve already learned that Omicron passes from person to person much more easily than other variants, especially in poorly ventilated areas.

“We have seen explosive increases in cases worldwide so far with this variant,” says Dr. Passaretti, “and we are going to see an increase in cases here in the United States in the next few weeks.”

The symptoms still seem to be the same: body aches, headaches, cough. In more severe cases, pneumonia and organ difficulties may be a concern, especially in those who are not vaccinated.

“The most important question is the severity of illness with Omicron and if that differs than in the past,” Dr. Passaretti says. “And that’s in a good or bad way – whether it’s more severe or less severe than other variants. Scientists are working hard to figure that out and as we see more cases, we’ll continue to learn more.”

What About the Vaccine?

As the COVID-19 virus continues to change, and more variants are discovered, scientists and researchers are working to learn more about the virus to determine if any changes are needed to the vaccines. In fact, such work has already begun for the Omicron variant. But that doesn’t mean you should wait to get vaccinated – or to get a booster shot.

“Should people bother getting vaccinated? The short answer is YES,” Dr. Ohl, says emphatically. “Even if this variant does have ways to evade some of our immune response, it’s very unlikely to evade all of it. That means the COVID-19 vaccine should continue to offer protection against severe infections due to this virus.”

“While the vaccine has shown to have slightly less protection against getting any type of infection with Omicron, being vaccinated and especially getting a booster are the best ways to protect you from being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19,” Dr. Passaretti says.

COVID-19 boosters are now available to everyone 18-years and older, as long as enough time has passed since your vaccination. (Five months for Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna and two months for Johnson & Johnson. Boosters are also available to everyone 12 to 17-year-olds who got the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine at least five months ago.) Dr. Passaretti says now is the perfect time to get a booster.

“Boosters are intended to do just what they say – give your immune system a little boost,” she explains. “We do boosters with other vaccines, and the reason is that over time the amount of protection offered by the vaccine decreases. The booster is essentially a reminder for your body that, ‘Hey this is something you still need to protect against’ and makes sure that you are maximally protected against severe illness from COVID-19.

While we’re still learning about the Omicron variant, Dr. Passaretti says there will be breakthrough infections among those who are vaccinated and even in some who were boosted.

“This is all about preventing severe illness and hospitalization,” she explains. “If the whole community has a minor cold and stays out of the hospital, that’s manageable.”

“I think the vaccine will still largely prevent hospitalizations. And if you’ve been boosted, it’ll do even more to protect you,” Dr. Ohl says. “But even if you have been vaccinated and you’ve received your booster, I wouldn’t change what we are doing. Masks still work. Avoiding large crowds and groups of people is still worthwhile. I still wear my mask indoors.”

Dr. Passaretti agrees and says those proactive behaviors are going to be extremely important in the coming weeks.

“We are going to see a marked increase in cases in the next few weeks,” she says. “But even if our rates of hospitalization are lower, this will impact our healthcare system, so we still need to do the most to we can to protect those who are most susceptible – people who are elderly, immunocompromised or unvaccinated. And we must protect our healthcare workers so that they can take care of others.”

Difficult Timing

“This is certainly not ideal timing,” Dr. Passaretti says. “The holiday season plus an increase in other respiratory viruses we’re already seeing and then add in an increase in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant.”

So what are families to do? The prospect of another locked down holiday season doesn’t appeal to anyone.

“We’re several years into this thing,” Dr. Passaretti says. “People need to see their families. And the safest way to do that is to make sure family gatherings are small and that all attendees are fully vaccinated – and ideally, boosted.”

Dr. Passaretti also recommends getting tested for COVID-19 either at home or at a testing site before gathering, for some added peace of mind. For families with children under age 5 who are too young to be vaccinated, she recommends weighing the risks and the benefits.

“It’s a difficult consideration but you need to keep in mind who you’re gathering with and their level of protection,” she says. “You want to cocoon them in safety by vaccinating everyone around them or reconsidering gathering at all.”

And while these discussions may be tricky amongst even the closest of families, Dr. Passaretti stresses just how important they are, and that health and safety must come above all.

“I think if you have family members who are high risk – those who are elderly, extremely young children or those who are immunocompromised, you may want to reconsider getting together right now. And as difficult a conversation as it might be, those who aren’t vaccinated, shouldn’t be gathering at all.”

The Bottom Line

For Dr. Passaretti and Dr. Ohl, the bottom line when it comes to protecting yourself against the Omicron variant is no different than what they’ve been repeating for months: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear your mask, stay home if you are sick and keep your distance.

“Stay home when you’re sick, wear a mask indoors and get vaccinated. And when it’s your time, get boosted. It’s the best protection you can give yourself and your loved ones,” Dr. Passaretti says.

“Vaccinations still work and protect you,” Dr. Ohl says. “And the more people we vaccinate and then give a booster to, the harder it will be for that virus to transmit from one person to another. The less transmission that occurs, the less chance the virus has to mutate.”

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