What health officials know -- and don't know -- about omicron
Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead and senior medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, addresses key questions regarding the omicron variant.
Q: Why is this variant so concerning?
A: It's more concerning -- for now -- until we know more about it. There are more mutations associated with this variant, over 30 mutations on the spike protein alone (which is what attaches the virus to the ACE-2 receptor on our cells and allows infection), compared to previous versions. (Delta variant has fewer than 10.) We'll be learning more about the omicron in the days and weeks to come, so we will know more shortly.
Q: Does the variant have a greater ability to infect?
A: We won't know for a couple of weeks. We know vaccines greatly reduce the risk of infection and transmission, and until we know more about how omicron interacts with current vaccines, we won't be able to answer this specific question with much confidence.
Q: When will be able to test for omicron?
A: Immediately. State and federal agencies can conduct sequencing right away. In addition, PCR tests can reveal if the virus is the omicron variant.
Q: Is omicron currently in the United States?
Probably, though we've seen no positive tests yet. We know it is in Canada, and with global travel, it's almost inevitable that it has arrived here. While this variant seems to be more contagious, we also have a better chance to contain it because we were aware of it early, with only a few hundred cases to date.
Q: When will we know if the current vaccines are effective against omicron?
A: Probably within a couple of weeks. This time frame will be able to tell us how many breakthrough cases there are at the same time as laboratory investigation is underway. We are encouraged so far that in South Africa most of the cases seem to be mild.
Q: Should we be panicked about the variant, especially the unknown?
A: It's wise to be concerned and cautious, but there is no reason to panic. There will be no lockdowns or anything of the sort, at least for now. The current remediations and recommendations should stay in place for the time being, and we urge everyone to follow them. It is especially important to stay masked and maintain physical distancing indoors unless only with your household.
Q: Will there be new versions of the vaccines available?
A: Much like the flu shot, which is reformulated every year based on new versions of the flu, new versions of the COVID-19 vaccines are likely. The companies have indicated they can have new booster formulations, to cover variants including perhaps omicron, within 100 days.
Q: What is going to change because of this variant?
A: You won't see an immediate change in guidance, but as people move indoors in the cold weather, we see changes in behavior, changes in workplace practices, and a real focus on common-sense, science-driven practices such as mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing and physical distancing.
Q: How should vaccinated people interact with non-vaccinated people, given the new variant?
A: If you are vaccinated, keep masking and physical distancing and all the practices that have been in place. If you are not vaccinated, we ask you to keep away. You are at a much higher risk of carrying and transmitting the virus. ... The unvaccinated carry a really dangerous risk to themselves and the rest of us.
Also, we need to do a better job of testing. If you are traveling, get tested when coming home. If you are unvaccinated or plan to be with people who are unvaccinated, get a test that morning. We need to have more testing to get a more complete picture of how widespread the virus is circulating and to keep each other safe.