Omicron: What You Need to Know

Nurse placing bandaid on patient's arm.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the latest COVID-19 variant now accounts for 95% of new infections in the U.S. Our infectious disease specialist Wouter Rietsema, MD, answers your top five questions. Dr. Rietsema is the Vice President of Population Health and Information Services at the UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital.

Why is the omicron variant so concerning?

Its sheer infectiousness. Omicron appears to be even more contagious than the delta variant, which was already more infectious than previous variants. Its shorter incubation period is resulting in steep increases in case numbers in places where it is prevalent – even amongst vaccinated people.

Is omicron less severe than other variants?

I think that is still an open question. Data from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, are mixed on this question and their data is not solid enough for us to know the answer yet. Anecdotal reports suggest it is less severe, but the sheer number of cases, even if hospitalization rates are lower, could still overwhelm already strained hospital systems.

I think we will learn a lot about this in the coming weeks with the growing data from New York City, where cases have risen meteorically in recent weeks. Hospitalizations typically lag about a week behind cases, so hospitalization data will be much more useful to answer this question.

Certainly breakthrough cases appear to be milder, but that was largely true for delta as well.

If you’ve been vaccinated, or had COVID-19 previously, are you protected against omicron?

You are not as well protected against infection as with previous variants, but it looks like vaccination still offers good protection from severe disease, hospitalization and death.

How can I protect myself from the omicron variant?

The most effective tools for protecting yourself remain the same: Vaccination first, get your booster, mask in public – particularly in indoor spaces – test for any symptoms to protect your friends and family, and limit your exposure to large groups of people.

That being said, the infectiousness of this variant is sobering, and it makes us understand that infection may not be a matter of if, but rather when one gets infected. This virus will be with us for a long time, so you really need to make a decision about how you plan to prepare for inevitable infection. It is incredibly important to get vaccinated to protect yourself and others from severe disease.

Are hospitals ready for a wave of new infections?

We are as ready as we can be, but this is going to be a very challenging winter season. There will likely be even further impact on our ability to staff our hospitals given omicron’s ability to break through, even amongst people who have been vaccinated and boosted.

Nevertheless, getting vaccinated or boosted is the best thing people in our communities can do to help us fight this pandemic and keep further pressure off our hospitals. They are already under enormous pressure.

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