Photo: Arif biswas (Shutterstock)
Omicron is the newest variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. Like Delta, it has been classified as a “variant of concern” (more serious than an “interesting variant”) by the World Health Organization. Like Delta, too, it moves fast. In South Africa, the number of cases has recently increased and cases of infection with the variant in have been found ever since New York, Hawaii, California, Minnesota, and Colorado.
So, yes, Omicron is something that public health officials are concerned about. But it hasn’t completely changed the rules of the game around COVID. WHO continues to recommend masks, ventilation, distancing and vaccines as our best remedies.
How bad is the Omicron variant?
Omicron got the attention of health officials because in some southern African countries their numbers rose rapidly, and because it has multiple genetic mutations that could be bad news, but we don’t yet know how bad. You don’t hear about it as much because it’s catastrophic; You hear about it because it’s worrying and new.
(By the way, this is a good lesson on why we don’t name diseases or variants by location: There was another “South African variant” earlier in the pandemic, no relation to this one. And Omicron probably not from South Africa; it has just been studied most thoroughly by the scientists of this country.)
According to World health organization:
- Omicron may be more portable than other flavors, but we’re not sure yet.
- Omicron could cause more serious illness than other variants, but once again we’re not sure.
- “Current vaccines remain effective against serious illness and death.” We don’t yet know whether vaccines are less effective against mild illnesses.
- Omicron can still detect COVID tests.
- Corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers – two of the treatments used for COVID – are still working. We are not aware of any other treatment methods.
- According to “preliminary evidence,” a previous infection may not protect very well against re-infection with Omicron.
What should I do?
As far as we know, our current tools are still working well. Vaccines are especially important. It appears that the current vaccines are still very good at protecting against serious illness and death, and it is likely that they will still protect against less serious illnesses caused by Omicron. (There are also many delta and other varieties of viruses.)
In fact, the new variant makes vaccination even more important. If you’ve had COVID before and thought you were likely immune, you may be more prone to Omicron than previous variants. And vaccines protect you and the people around you for all the reasons they did before. Recall, Vaccines are now available to everyone ages 5 and up, so take your pictures if you haven’t already.