A new and likely more transmissible coronavirus variant has emerged, prompting travel restrictions, extended mandates and concern about what this means for the pandemic.
The variant, Omicron, was first identified in Botswana and South Africa and was designated in late November as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). While there is little information on this particular variant, we do know that it has an unusually high number of mutations which has the potential to make the virus more transmissible and susceptible to existing vaccines.
“Mutations are part of the expected evolution of a virus life cycle, but they actually happen by accident,” said Dr. Krupa Playforth, ThePediatricianMom. “Every time the SARS CoV2 virus infects a new host and replicates within that host’s cells, there is an opportunity for an error to occur. These errors lead to mutations and variants.”
The risks from this particular variant are not yet understood because of how new it is, and because of this limited information, a lot of questions remain.
What do we know about Omicron’s presence in the United States?
It’s too soon to know or predict how this virus will spread. As of December 3 only 10 cases were confirmed nationwide. The first two cases were confirmed on December 2, and of those cases both individuals have experienced mild symptoms. The first person who tested positive for the variant returned from South Africa to San Francisco on November 22 and tested positive on November 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The individual was fully vaccinated and is expected to fully recover.
The second case was traced back to a man in Minnesota who attended an anime convention in New York City days prior to his positive test. He was fully vaccinated and received his booster shot. He is no longer feeling symptoms according to officials, and extensive contact tracing is underway.
Are experts worried?
The discovery of Omicron has prompted concern across the globe. Many countries have banned flights from southern Africa, and countries like Israel, Japan and Morocco are barring foreign travelers from entering their country all together. President Biden announced new travel restrictions this week that require anyone travelling into the United States to have proof of a negative Covid-19 test within 24-hours of their departure. He has also extended the transit mask mandate through March of 2022, which requires masks to be worn at all times on airplanes, buses, trains and boats, as well as in airports and other transportation hubs.
But medical and public health experts have urged caution over panic due to the limited information that is currently available.
Dr. Jessica Madden, a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Medical Director of Aeroflow Breastpumps says this new variant could be a good thing.
“Its emergence might end up being positive, as it’s possible that it will compete with Delta,” she said. “And if people get Omicron instead of Delta they might not get as ill. This could end up being the true beginning of the end of the pandemic. It’s postulated that Covid-19 will always be with us, much like influenza, so it will be better to have milder strains of it circulate every year.”
What about vaccines?
Vaccines are expected to provide some protection against the Omicron variant. Vaccines in general provide protection against a virus because they stimulate other immune cells that attack virus-infected cells and stimulate the antibodies.
Dr. Corey Casper, MPH, CEO of the Infectious Disease Research Institute, a non-profit biotech organization, says the current vaccines are likely to help. “Even if they are only 20% effective, that improves the odds in your favor, and when we say protected, they may have an even greater effect on preventing severe illness or death,” he said. “With the previous variants of concern, higher antibody titers to the original vaccine, were associated with greater protection against variants of concern, which is why another injection to boost your immune response has been recommended as Delta continues to circulate – so don’t just get vaccinated, get a booster.”
So, what if you’re fully vaccinated and have your booster? Should you care about Omicron?
Experts agree that you should still mask up, wash your hands and practice social distancing, regardless of your vaccination status. Other variants, like the Delta variant, were very contagious and caused a large spike in cases and deaths among the unvaccinated earlier this year. And with the emergence of these new variants, light is shed on a fundamental problem facing the global population – the hoarding of vaccines by wealthier countries. This in turn has caused less affluent nations to have trouble keeping their outbreaks at bay while doing their best to obtain life-saving vaccines. This situation only provides more opportunities for the virus to mutate and new variants to form.
What does this mean for holiday travel?
With this new variant’s timing centered in the middle of the holiday season, concerns around travel have emerged. With many Americans having to stay home and sit out last season’s festivities with family and friends, experts feel a little better about this year. And that’s in large part because of vaccines and booster shots. Dr. Casper recommends that if you’re visiting any family, getting vaccinated and getting your booster shot is the way to go. “Make sure that all who gather are vaccinated and boosted and consider testing immediately prior to gathering as a group,” he said.
Dr. Madden says that decision making for this upcoming holiday season will depend in large part on what is happening in your family and your community. She recommends knowing what the infection rate in your area looks like and being thoughtful about higher-risk gatherings if your community is seeing an uptick in cases.
“Every layer helps,” she said. “To decrease risk even further, families could think about rapid testing at the start of the vacation and being flexible about changing plans if anyone becomes sick. More than anything, being flexible is probably my biggest advice, because these recommendations may change as we learn more about Omicron.”
This kids face mask gallery is a good place to start shopping!