Understanding the Omicron Variant

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We asked Dr. Martin Topiel, chief infection control officer at Virtua Health, to tell us what we need to know about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

COVID cases are once again surging. What do you anticipate happening in early 2022?
Omicron has caused a significant wave of COVID cases. By and large, it appears to be milder in its presentation to vaccinated people – particularly those who have received a vaccine booster. Hospitals and health care providers could still be overrun by sheer numbers, however, because Omicron is so contagious. As before, those who are unvaccinated and those with existing health conditions are at greatest risk for severe infection and/or hospitalization.

How is Omicron different from previous strains of the virus?
The rapidity of the transmission is alarming. Omicron appears to spread at a rate three times greater than Delta. It’s much like measles in terms of how quickly and easily it passes from one person to another.

The upside is that fully vaccinated people who have had a booster shot do not, on average, become severely ill. Of course, there is still a tremendous consequence to our jobs and our families (such as the need to quarantine) if we are exposed or infected.

How important are booster shots?
To me, they are essential. I would recommend anyone who is eligible get a booster vaccine as quickly as possible. Without the booster, vaccine effectiveness is reduced to 30 percent in preventing symptomatic infection.

The opportunity to transmit to others still exists under that scenario. The initial vaccines still prevent hospitalization as much as 70 percent, but that is a reduction compared to the effectiveness against earlier strains and variants.

I once compared the vaccines to having a winter coat in the middle of a snowstorm. The coat doesn’t make the storm go away, but it provides you with vital protection. To extend the metaphor, the booster is like draping a blanket over your coat and helping you withstand the elements.

Beyond getting the booster, what can we do to stay safe?
I encourage everyone to think carefully about where they go and how they spend time with others. If something feels unsafe to you, discuss it with your loved ones and brainstorm alternatives. I recognize it is difficult to maintain these safety behaviors month after month, but we all share an obligation to support public health. That includes social distancing, mask wearing, and staying home and away from others if/when we feel ill.

If I only feel mildly sick, do I need to isolate and remain home?
Yes. Even something you would typically dismiss as a cold or runny nose should be given extra consideration as possible COVID. There is a great risk of people with mild symptoms – or those with no symptoms at all – spreading the virus to those who are more vulnerable.

We can’t be too careful, and so the smart thing to do is to stay home until you are well and minimize your interactions with others, even in your household.

Will another variant come after Omicron?
A virus, by its nature, will continue to mutate. In many cases, it will adapt to become more resistant to vaccines and our other safety measures. So it is almost certain that variants will continue to develop and spread so long as there are hosts to acquire it. This again underscores the importance of vaccination, mask-wearing, and the other safety behaviors we’ve discussed.

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