Here's what we know about omicron variant thus far

Posted at 9:55 PM, Dec 28, 2021

In just the past two weeks, many of us are finding out about so many people who have contracted COVID-19.

Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease attending physician at Boston Medical Center, says epidemiologists believe the omicron variant to be 25% to 50% more transmissible than Delta.

“There have been a number of events that I would call almost super-spreader events where people have been together for a holiday party, and a large proportion of them have become infected,” Dr. Hamer said.

Dr. Hamer says the numbers of people infected will likely continue to rise until after the New Year.

He says outdoor activities probably should be OK. However, because this virus is so transmissible, being close to many people outside may not be the safest thing unless everyone is wearing a mask.

He says indoor activities where there is no mask use will be very high risk.

Dr. Greg Poland, the director and founder of Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group, says we're seeing more breakthrough infections with Omicron among people who are vaccinated.

Not because the vaccine isn't working, but because lack of vaccination allows for the possibility of new variants, and Omicron is so transmissible that the virus can break through the protection built up from antibodies.

Furthermore, Dr. Poland says Omicron is also causing reinfection among people who have already had COVID-19.

However, people who are vaccinated will see a more mild case.

“I would expect that we’ll start climbing toward that peak in the next two weeks," Dr. Poland said. "We’re at about 200,000 new infections in the U.S. per day, many are predicting that we may reach 500,000 new infections a day.”

Even though many people are contracting COVID-19 right now, Dr. Poland says preliminary data shows people aren't getting as ill (like developing pneumonia) as they were with the Delta variant.

“It really depends but in general, it appears at this early stage that the severity of illness is less with Omicron than it was with Delta," Dr. Poland said. "However, there’s quite a bit of variability. When you’re talking about somebody who’s unvaccinated, obese, or immunocompromised, you’re still talking about significant risk of moderate, severe, and even death related to omicron.”

He says that omicron’s more concerning is that it’s rendering some approved treatments useless.

“We have three approved monoclonal antibody preparations," Dr. Poland said. "It evades two of those, so we’re down to one.”

Dr. Hamer says there’s a limited supply of the one that does work. He says the good news is that starting in January, we anticipate the Pfizer and Merck drugs to become available as options to prevent high-risk people from becoming hospitalized.

As kids get ready to return to school shortly after the New Year, both Dr. Hamer and Dr. Poland say schools need to focus on having preventative measures in place. Dr. Poland says it seems more kids have been landing in the hospital with the omicron variant compared to the delta variant.

“Frankly, one of the things the schools could do would be to delay the start for a couple of weeks trying to get past the immediate peak of the post-holidays,” Dr. Poland said.

Dr. Hamer suggests testing everyone before they return to school and continuing with routine or random testing on top of symptomatic testing.

And as much as you’ve all heard it before, they say your best defense against this virus is to be fully vaccinated with a booster. Dr. Poland says with a variant like an omicron and the possibility of future variants, and vaccination will be necessary.

He says a third of the country still isn't fully immunized.

He says mask-wearing is also very effective, but with the high transmissibility rates of Omicron, a cloth mask may not offer enough protection.

“The KN-95 mask is the best mask you could be wearing in crowded indoor spaces,” Dr. Poland said.

If you've been exposed to somebody who tests positive for COVID-19, you should get tested.

Studies show that people can shed the virus before showing symptoms, and asymptomatic cases are still possible.

"Hoping that it will just get better is a form of madness," Dr. Poland said. "I personally think we are going to see another variant or two that is dangerous to human health. Then it will very likely reflect an influenza-like status. We've had more deaths in the U.S. now than in 1918 from the great influenza pandemic. They undoubtedly would have given anything to have vaccines of the efficacy and safety that we have."