Omicron COVID Variant: What We Know – and Don’t

In late November 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified a new COVID-19 variant as a growing cause for concern: Omicron. It was first noted in South Africa, where the country’s minister of health announced its rapid spread throughout the country.

Although this novel strain presents a reason to be vigilant about protection against COVID-19, President Joe Biden emphasized that there is no need to panic. As we get more information about the new COVID variant Omicron, global efforts are being taken to minimize the spread of the new strain. In the United States, for example, new travel restrictions have been put in place to South Africa and the surrounding countries.

Still, many are wondering what makes Omicron different from the Delta variant and others that have emerged in recent months. So today, we’re here to help you understand what’s known – and what’s still being studied – about the new variant. 

Here’s what to know about Omicron

We can’t say for sure whether Omicron causes more severe illness than other variants, according to public health experts. One thing that has been confirmed is that the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, which means there have been several changes to its genetic makeup. 

Based on early accounts, it does also seem that Omicron may be even more contagious or easy to spread than other COVID-19 variants have been. This particular observation has triggered concern among the medical community, because the dominant variant in the U.S., Delta, has already proven to be very contagious. If Omicron is more contagious, it could supersede the Delta variant, potentially leading to another wave of infections throughout the country.

The Omicron variant in the United States

As of December 1st, the Omicron variant was reported in California. As of the writing of this article, it has since spread to 30 states, as well as Washington D.C. However, early evidence seems to point to Omicron cases in the U.S. being mostly mild. 

That said, experts in the infectious diseases community have reiterated that as of now, the U.S. dominant strain is the Delta variant. Fortunately, the COVID-19 vaccines are effective against Delta.

Typical symptoms of the Omicron variant

At this time, there hasn’t been enough data collected to share which symptoms are most often seen with the Omicron variant.

Best ways to protect yourself against the Omicron variant

Vaccine protection continues to be the best prevention against COVID-19, and the Omicron variant is a major reason to get vaccinated if you haven’t done so already. Vaccine effectiveness and safety has also been proven across all age groups, so children ages 5+ should get vaccinated as soon as possible.

For those who are already vaccinated, getting a booster shot is also a great line of defense. It’s especially important if you have a weakened immune system. The booster raises your body’s antibody levels, increasing the length and strength of your immunity and protection against COVID-19 and its variants. While Omicron hasn’t been active enough to yield specific effectiveness data in regards to the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, it will offer – at the very least – partial protection, which is better than none at all. 

Should I be worried about the Omicron variant? 

Naturally, it’s normal to be concerned about the spread of the virus as novel variants develop. 

If the new variant turns out to be more contagious, produce severe illness and have a lower vaccine effectiveness rate than previous strains, it could be cause for concern. But until more data has emerged about the unique characteristics of Omicron, there’s no way to know for sure. The best thing you can do is to continue practicing safety measures known to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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