How serious is the omicron variant? Here’s what you need to know

The aggressive spread and the uncertainty of whether the current vaccines fully protect us against these new variants have raised the brow of public health officials.

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If you’re experiencing COVID fatigue—apathy towards media coverage of the pandemic, not actual symptoms—you may want to brace yourself because this virus does not appear to be going away any time soon.

The omicron variant, the third major variation of the virus since the start of the pandemic, is now the dominant strain in a host of countries, including the United States, Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), omicron has made up 73 percent of all new COVID-19 infections sequenced in the U.S. over the past week. To put this into context, just one week ago, delta made up 87 percent of cases to omicron’s 12.6 percent. According to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in the NBA, which has a 97 percent fully vaccinated rate and 65 percent booster rate, over 90 percent of positive tests were the omicron subtype, underscoring the rapid spread of this evolving disease. Players have been held out of an abundance of caution, and some games have been postponed. Corporate offices and schools have also taken a vigilant approach, shifting work and class to virtual settings. 

The Rise of Omicron, Explained

When viruses mutate, they become hard to detect by the immune system, even in those who are fully vaccinated. Genetic alterations have allowed omicron to enter our bodies more easily and evade the germ-killing mechanisms and immune protection conferred by past infection or vaccination.

The reason why the omicron variant has spread more aggressively than other variants like mu and delta remains a mystery. Still, one reality that we must accept is that this alternative form of the virus is unlikely to be the last that we encounter. 

Vaccines are the best defense against the virus because they help curb the spread of infection by limiting replication and your ability to pass it onto others. This has been substantiated by the vaccine’s effectiveness in halting the spread of the delta variant, especially in those who have received a booster, an additional shot of the vaccine. Just how much protection is provided against omicron infection from the current 3-dose regimen remains to be seen, but initial data is promising. 

Is Omicron a Major Threat?

New variants were always expected. As cases of delta or any other variant go down, new forms of the virus that surface in unvaccinated hosts begin to predominate, harboring the potential to affect both those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated. 

Still, the aggressive spread of omicron and the uncertainty of whether the current vaccines fully protect us against these new subtypes has raised the brow of public health officials.  

With news of rising cases, schools shifting to online learning, Broadway and holiday party cancellations, and COVID testing lines longer than the ones witnessed last year, there is growing concern that the omicron variant will force us into lockdown once again.

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While President Joe Biden and his team have assured the nation that this will not be the case, going as far as announcing a new initiative to distribute at-home tests and encouraging vaccinated Americans to safely go ahead with holiday plans, the novel strain that Black and brown communities have jokingly called “Omarion”—an homage to the once acclaimed leader of the teen heartthrob R&B group B2K—should be taken very seriously.

Omicron resembles another coronavirus you might be familiar with, the common cold, causing mild symptoms like cough, congestion, and fatigue, but the term mild can be misleading. 

No two people have the same COVID experience, and symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Symptoms are subjective in nature; mild symptoms in one person may be moderate symptoms in another and last for a long period of time. The immune systems of older people (65+) and the immunocompromised may be unable to withstand the assault of omicron, underscoring the importance of protecting yourself and your loved ones. Even more, the term mild ignores the long-COVID symptoms associated with less severe cases. 

To date, omicron has been more of a nuisance than a deadly disease, with only one confirmed death attributed to the new strain thus far—an unvaccinated man from Texas, according to a press release from Harris County Public Health

New data comparing omicron and delta infections in South Africa between April and November also suggests that the Omicron variant results in a lower risk of hospitalization, by as much as 80 percent than earlier versions of the virus, such as the delta variant. 

A Condition We Must Learn to Live With

Coronaviruses are very unpredictable; therefore, it is imperative that every precaution is taken to preserve the nation’s health and safety. This prudent approach may contribute to the perception of a frustratingly slow recovery, but given our shoddy initial public health response, and the thousands of preventable deaths attributed to this, it pays to get it right the first time. Increases in testing, mask wearing, and shots in arms remain the keys to ensuring that our taxed hospital systems are not overwhelmed and overcoming this pandemic in general.

Current research shows that three doses of the Pfizer or Moderna shot is the most effective way to ward off COVID. Still, as long as there are huge swaths of people worldwide who remain unvaccinated, we can anticipate seeing more variants and cases of COVID-19, including “breakthroughs” in the fully vaccinated. 

Viruses replicate uncontrollably in the unvaccinated—so quickly that it doesn’t bother to correct mistakes that have been made during the process. Some mutations are of no concern, while others provide a selective advantage, such as new ways to enter the cell or the ability to avoid the killing mechanism of antibodies. Vaccines help the body create special memory cells that remember COVID variants as soon as it enters the body. When COVID is spotted, the seek-and-destroy mechanisms of the immune system activate, eradicating the virus before it can replicate and cause harmful symptoms. 

Vaccines are neither perfect nor a cure for the coronavirus, but they are still the most powerful and effective tool in our arsenal. While they do not eliminate your risk of infection, they do rev up your immune system, greatly decreasing your risk of hospitalization and death should you come into contact with the virus. Wearing a mask, especially in groups of any size with unknown vaccination status, adds another vital level of protection. By covering your mouth and nose, you block the virus’s portal of entry and exit, limiting the transmission of this highly contagious disease. 

As the public health community gathers more data and learns about the nuances of each variant, it becomes more and more likely that COVID, like the flu, will be a condition we must learn to manage and not one we will eliminate. 

The country cannot afford another winter in isolation, away from our friends and family. We must move forward to preserve our mental and emotional health, but apathy and reckless abandonment of our community health principles are not an option. We must move forward with a plan. Wearing a mask, getting tested and taking three doses of the vaccination are still the keys to ending this. Pandemic. But make no question about it, “Omarion” marks the beginning of the end.

So brace yourselves as we enter the next phase of the pandemic — COVID-19 as a chronic disease that can be well managed with the old school tactics of handwashing, mask wearing, and vaccination. 

Dr. Shamard Charles is the executive director of graduate studies in public health at St. Francis College and sits on the Medical Advisory Board of Verywell Health (Dot Dash-Meredith). He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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