The COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting us all two years after the virus was first discovered. The US has now had more than 830,000 deaths caused by COVID-19 infection. I thought I would share some of the latest information with you.
What should you know about the Omicron Variant?
The Omicron variant has been detected in most states and territories of the US, and it is rapidly becoming the dominant variant in the US and around the world. However, in many parts of the US, the Delta variant is still causing a significant number of serious infections. The Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 illness, is the most contagious strain of coronavirus yet. This is due to a combination of how quickly the virus replicates and how the changes in the spike protein make it more likely to stick to the cells lining our nose and upper respiratory tract.
On 1/3/22, the seven-day average of daily new cases of COVID-19 infection was 480,273, with the US reporting more than 1 million new cases on that same date. On Tuesday 1/4/22, 112,941 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19. This number is significantly higher than the peak hospitalizations during early September (during the Delta surge) and is almost as high as the record high on 1/14/21 during the winter surge last year. This is a serious indication of how transmissible this new variant is.
Erodes Immune Protection
Because of the significant changes in the spike protein of Omicron, this virus is more able to evade the antibodies that a person developed from a prior infection or from a vaccine. In addition, many people have antibody levels that have decreased somewhat because it has been more than 6 months since their last vaccine or their prior infection.
There are two bits of good news though. A booster dose of the COVID vaccines has been shown to be effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death from Omicron, likely due in part to boosting waning antibody levels. In addition, a recent study suggests that the memory B cells (another part of the immune system’s weaponry) that develop from the vaccines show strong benefit against the Omicron variant, even though antibodies themselves are less effective.
It appears that the Omicron variant is causing less severe disease in adults than earlier variants. However, it may be too early to make a blanket statement about that. Some adults are still developing severe, even life-threatening infections. Early research suggests that the Omicron variant causes more upper-airway problems and fewer lung problems.
This variant appears to be causing more severe disease in children than prior variants, and the pediatric hospitalization rate has surged to its highest point. Upper-airway complications from respiratory viruses are much more dangerous in children than adults, particularly young children.
Now an average of more than 600 children are being admitted to the hospital each day due to COVID-19 infections. There were more than 325,000 new cases among children during the week ending December 30th.
How can you protect against infection with the Omicron variant?
Get vaccinated and boosted – The mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 are safe and effective. The booster dose, now recommended 5 months after the second in the initial series, is essential to provide protection against Omicron. Booster shots have now been recommended for ages 12 and up. Children ages 5-11 who are moderately to severely immunocompromised should get an additional primary dose 28 days after their second shot.
Wear a mask – Because the Omicron variant is so much more transmissible, masks are more important than ever. Public health experts recommend wearing a higher quality mask any time you are in a place with lots of people or indoors with others for any extended period. A cloth or surgical mask might be fine for a quick grocery trip at a time when there are few other shoppers, but for most outings when you will be exposed to others, especially indoors, you should be wearing a well-fitting N95 mask that covers your nose and mouth. If you do not have N95 masks, you can wear a surgical mask under a cloth mask, making sure they are both well-fitting and covering your nose and mouth.
Avoid large gatherings – Limit gatherings to 10 people, preferably fully vaccinated. Avoid crowded areas, especially indoors. If you do need to be in a crowded area, wear a mask to protect yourself.
Next week, we will talk more about recent COVID-19 information including additional details about some of the latest CDC recommendations. Until then, if you have any questions about COVID-19, the vaccines, or any other aspect of the pandemic, please log into your account and send us a question. We are here to help.
Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor