In just one weekend, the Omicron variant seems to have turned the pandemic on its head. This new variant of COVID has nearly triple the number of mutations that Delta has, some of which could make Omicron spread more easily and potentially evade current immune responses. But these are just predictions as of now. Virus experts say it will take some time to gather enough data to determine whether or not this new variant will become more serious than the dominant Delta variant. For his part, White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, recently told President Joe Biden that it will take around two weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility and severity of this new iteration of the virus.
But despite there still being so much we don't know about the Omicron variant, health officials have said there are tried and true COVID precautions that we know can at least stave off some infections and severe cases. "How do we address Omicron? … Get boosted if you are vaccinated," Fauci said during a Nov. 30 White House press briefing. "Continue to use the mitigation methods—namely masks, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated space."
He added, "As with other variants, although partial immune escape may occur, vaccines and particularly boosters give a level of antibody that, even with variants like Delta, give you a degree of cross-protection, particularly against severe disease."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have recently touted the importance of these protective methods as well. NIH Director Francis Collins reminded people of his recommendation on wearing masks during a Nov. 30 interview on ABC News' Good Morning America, especially as the U.S. awaits the arrival of the new Omicron variant.
"I know we're all tired of this, but the virus is not tired of us and it's continuing to exploit those opportunities where we're careless," Collins said. "I would recommend [wearing masks] even without knowing about Omicron, because Delta is very much with us."
And on Nov. 29, the CDC strengthened its recent decision to expand booster eligibility by telling all vaccinated adults that they "should" (as opposed to "can") go out and get this additional shot if they are six months out from their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or two months out from their Johnson&Johnson shot.
"The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19," the CDC said in a statement.
Fauci also said that anyone who is not vaccinated should do so as soon as possible, even if the variant ends up evading some of the vaccines' protection. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said on Nov. 22 that there were still about 47 million unvaccinated U.S. adults and more than 12 million unvaccinated teens who are eligible for vaccination.
"To be crystal clear, we have far more tools to fight the variant today than we had at this time last year," Walensky said during the Nov. 30 briefing.
According to Fauci, while the highly mutated Omicron variant has been detected in nearly 20 countries so far, there has not yet been a confirmed case detected by officials in the U.S. The infectious disease expert has said it's likely the variant will enter the country soon, however.
In South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, doctors have been reporting mild symptoms associated with the variant. But Fauci cautioned that these reports are based on a small number of cases that have occurred in younger and healthier patients who would typically only have a mild case of COVID regardless of the variant.
"It is very difficult to know whether or not this particular variant is going to result in severe disease," Fauci said during the press briefing. "Although some preliminary information from South Africa suggests no unusual symptoms associated with variant, we do not know and it is too early to tell."