Omicron, the newest variant of COVID-19, has been making headlines for the last few weeks. Designated as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO), the variant was first detected in South Africa but cases are now popping up throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Concerns about Omicron center around the many mutations the variant contains compared to previous strains. Since it's still so new, it will be weeks before scientists know more about how the variant behaves. But although there's not a lot of data yet, there is a lot of speculation—particularly in these three areas:
- Virus Spread: Researchers believe as of now that Omicron will likely spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, although they're unsure if it will be more or less transmissible than Delta, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Severity of Illness: Preliminary data about the severity of illness caused by the variant has shown it to be milder than first feared. But while this news is encouraging, it is far too early to tell if that will hold up over time.
- Vaccine Effectiveness: The CDC expects current vaccines to continue to protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death, but more data is needed to confirm this. Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director, says he expects vaccine boosters to be critical in addressing the Omicron variant.
How to Protect Yourself
So what can you do to avoid getting infected with Omicron or other variants of COVID-19, especially in the midst of a holiday season filled with socializing, events and travel?
- Focus on what is known. Rather than making decisions based on speculation about Omicron—which is likely to change from day to day—remember that the biggest threat in the U.S. right now is still the Delta variant. At least five states have set new all-time high COVID-19 records since Thanksgiving.
- Get vaccinated. Vaccines are the best line of defense against COVID-19 variants, according to the CDC. Although breakthrough infections occur, vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. Anyone age 5 and older is eligible for a vaccine.
- Get boostered. Booster shots help improve waning immunity that occurs over time. All adults ages 18 and up are eligible for a booster shot at least 6 months after the second dose of a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine or 2 months after a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
- Wear a mask. Regardless of which variants are circulating, wearing a mask around other people is still one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus. This is true whether you've been vaccinated, boostered or not.
- Be informed. If you're traveling, attending an event or visiting family and friends, be aware of what's required of you. You may need to show proof of vaccination and/or get tested within a specific timeframe. You may also need to take extra precautions based on who you're around or where you're headed.
Information about the Omicron variant will continue to develop in the coming days, weeks and months. In the meantime, the best line of defense is to do the same things you have done to protect yourself against other strains of COVID-19.
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Date Last Reviewed: December 7, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD