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What Does Omicron Mean for the COVID-19 Pandemic?

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The omicron variant of the coronavirus has outpaced the delta variant as the dominant strain in the United States and is causing record high levels of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention..

“The omicron variant is concerning because it has many mutations which make the virus able to spread much faster between people,” said Adam Brady, MD, from Samaritan Infectious Disease who heads the Coronavirus Task Force at Samaritan. “Omicron is very different from previous variants.”

According to Dr. Brady, omicron is already spreading rapidly in Oregon and causing all-time high case counts.

“Hospitalizations are rising across the nation as cases increase with omicron, although admissions to the intensive care unit do not seem to be rising as quickly as they did with other variants,” said Dr. Brady.

This could mean that omicron causes a milder infection. However, because of the high numbers overall there is concern that there will be a surge in hospitalizations at health care facilities that are still very busy.

How Well Are Vaccinations Working Against Omicron?

Current vaccines are doing a good job of preventing serious infection or death; however, breakthrough cases may be more likely with omicron than delta. COVID-19 vaccine booster doses have been shown to be effective at increasing protection against omicron.

The vaccines for COVID-19 work by primarily targeting the spike protein on the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Omicron may be able to evade some of the defenses provided by a vaccine because it has so many mutations on the spike protein. Fortunately, immunity from the body’s T-cells, which work to neutralize viruses and prevent infection, are also activated during vaccination and still offer protection from severe disease.

Omicron Treatments

Doctors do have some treatment options to stop the omicron variant from spreading in the body. According to Dr. Brady, Remdesivir, an antiviral drug administered intravenously, works, as does sotrovimab, a monoclonal (lab-produced) antibody. Monoclonal antibodies such as Regen-CoV and Bam-E (a combination of bamiamivimab and etesevimab), won’t. There are also Emergency Use Authorizations for the first prescription oral antivirals providing a new tool, in a form of a pill, to help slow progression to severe disease.

Unfortunately, effective treatments are in high demand and low in supply, which can make them hard to access.

You Can Protect Yourself

The good news is that the ways we have learned to protect ourselves from COVID-19 haven’t changed. The following guidelines have been proven to slow the transmission of the coronavirus and reduce the risk of infection and severe disease:

  • Wear a mask in public and around people who you don’t live with.
    • N95/KN95 or surgical masks are more effective than cloth masks.
  • Avoid large gatherings of people, especially indoors.
  • Everyone ages 5 and older who is able should get vaccinated.
  • Everyone who is eligible should get a booster shot.

A recent British study that has not yet been peer-reviewed reported that after two doses of Pfizer vaccine, effectiveness against omicron was 34 to 37% against infection. After a third, booster dose, effectiveness against infection rose to 75%.

“With omicron in circulation, now is the time to get vaccinated if you haven’t yet. And I would strongly recommend getting a booster if you are eligible,” said Dr. Brady. “The booster restores protection against infection. The booster also helps protect against severe disease, which is especially important for people over age 65.”

Watch Dr. Brady’s video updates on the Omicron variant.

Find a vaccination site near you.