The new COVID Variant: What’s ahead with Omicron?

December 01, 2021

Wellness During COVID-19
Shot of a young doctor using a digital tablet during a consultation with a senior woman

In late November, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the discovery of “Omicron,” a new variant of the COVID-19 virus. While its risks are not yet well understood, WHO has classified Omicron as a “variant of concern.” According to WHO, the virus will require constant monitoring, evaluation and global tracking.

Although we have made tangible gains in the fight against COVID-19 and the quality of our lives has vastly improved over pre-vaccination days of the pandemic, the emergence of this new variant is a reminder that the virus is still very much with us. 

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) effectively made that point when he said: “Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us.” 

This blog provides information on Omicron, addresses concerns about this new variant, identifies some of the agencies that are tracking the virus and recommends actions you can take to stay safe. 

Where was the Omicron variant first detected?

Omicron was discovered in the Gauteng province of South Africa in early November. Physicians in the area started seeing increasing cases in which young college-aged patients were complaining of fatigue and headaches. 

A laboratory in the region began noticing anomalies when they were processing Covid-19 tests. Conducting a scientific study, the laboratory determined that there was a new variant, initially known as B.1.1.529. The variant was later named Omicron. 

Omicron quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa and created a new surge in cases. “So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats and a lot of body pains," said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in the province where 81 percent of the early cases were reported.

Studies are underway to understand if the rise in positive tests is solely because of Omicron or if other factors are involved. Depending on how transmissible the variant is and whether it could escape immunity, however, "the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high," WHO revealed. 

The mutation has already been found in at least 15 countries since late November.

Researchers in South Africa and around the world continue to share the findings of their studies as they become available.

Are there cases of Omicron in the United States?

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reported at a White House news conference that the CDC was looking for cases of the variant in the United States, but as of late November, none had been found. The Delta variant is still dominant, and it makes up 99.9 percent of our country’s recent surge in cases.

Is the Omicron variant more infectious than Delta?

Studies currently underway include scientific assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments.

It is not yet clear at this point whether an infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta, according to WHO. 

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, stresses that it is still too early to fully understand how dangerous the variant might be. It might be weeks before scientists studying the new virus are able to fully understand its properties, he reported. He added that our available vaccines should provide protection against Omicron.

WHO Health Emergencies Program COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said early evidence on omicron shows that the variant has a large number of mutations, some of which have concerning characteristics—including an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants. That means people who contract COVID and recover could be more subject to catching it again with this variant.

“Scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant,” revealed Dr. Walensky. 

Are the Omicron symptoms different from Delta?

There is currently no information to suggest that the initial symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants, reports WHO. 

"You're not going to be able to tell the difference between the Omicron COVID variant and beginning influenza—or even most of our common colds in the winter," said Dr. Emily Landon, an Infectious Disease Specialist at the University of Chicago.

In other words, you won’t know, especially at the beginning of an illness, what kind of illness you have—you have to get tested, she emphasizes.

In general, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe. The preliminary symptoms that may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus can include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

While the symptoms may be mild at first, all variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can lead severe disease or death—in particular for the most vulnerable people. 

One bit of preliminary evidence that is noteworthy suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron. In other words, people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron. More information on this will become available from WHO in the coming days and weeks.

What precautions should I take to protect myself against the Omicron variant?

Prevention is key, and it is the best way to avoid contracting the Omicron virus.

Get vaccinated. While it's not clear whether new formulations will be needed, or if current COVID vaccinations will provide protection against the new variant, WHO urges eligible adults and children to get vaccinated to protect themselves against both the Delta variant and the Omicron variant. WHO stresses that current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death. 

Get Boosted. The CDC, in addition to strengthening its recommendations for getting vaccinated against COVID-19, urged individuals to follow up their vaccinations with a COVID-19 booster shot. They recommend that all individuals over 18 should get a booster when they become eligible (six months after their initial Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna series and two months after their initial J&J vaccine because strong immunity will likely prevent serious illness.

Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky stress that boosters will provide people additional protection against Omicron, if and when the variant arrives in the United States. While the COVID vaccine and booster were developed to fight off the original form of the coronavirus, the protective antibodies after a booster shot would offer additional resistance against the new strain and would likely prevent severe illness, Dr. Fauci said. 

Wear a mask. President Biden, at a recent White House press conference, appealed to Americans to get back to wearing face masks in all indoor public settings, a precaution that many individuals have been lax with after being vaccinated.

Stop the spread. Riverside Health System advises that if you feel ill, stay home. Wash your hands regularly and maintain social distancing. If you are concerned you might have COVID-19, use Riverside’s online assessment tool to learn what to do next.

Get tested. The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection—including infection with Omicron—reports WHO. If possible, undergo a rapid COVID test before any gathering so you can be sure you are not infected. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.

Riverside continues to recommend the COVID-19 vaccination and booster and offers the vaccines throughout the region. Schedule an appointment through Riverside or call 757-534-5050.

Additional information on Riverside’s related services is available at COVID-19.

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