Almost as quickly as Omicron was designated a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO) after its discovery, the latest COVID-19 variant has spread to dozens of countries worldwide—including the United States. The days since have seen scientists in a race against the clock to determine exactly how much more contagious the viral offshoot may be and if it renders our current vaccines less effective. But as the variant continues to spread while data and evidence begins to come in, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, has already made a prediction that Omicron will not be slowing down in the coming days.
During an appearance on ABC's This Week on Dec. 5, Walensky was asked by host Martha Raddatz about the recent arrival of Omicron in the United States and what the potential implications could be in the fight against COVID-19. "We know it has many mutations, more mutations than prior variants," she said. "Many of those mutations have been associated with more transmissible variants, with evasion of some of our therapeutics, and potentially evasion of some of our immunity, and that's what we're watching really carefully."
The CDC director confirmed that while 15 states had already reported cases from the latest viral offshoot, she expects the number to rise. As of Dec. 6, the count had already jumped to 17, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin, according to data from The New York Times.
Still, Walensky focused on the fact that rising cases in the U.S. could still be attributed to a more familiar foe. "We have about 90 to 100,000 cases a day right now in the United States, and 99.9 percent of them are the Delta variant," she said. "We have so many things that we can do about Delta, including getting vaccinated, including getting boosted.
When pressed by Raddatz on what the near future of the pandemic would look like if Omicron were confirmed to be more contagious than the currently dominant Delta variant, Walensky clarified that she still had hope we could successfully fight the viral offshoot with the shots already available to us. "I think the next six months really depend on how we mobilize together to do the things that we know work," she predicted. "We know from a vaccine standpoint that the more mutations a single variant has, the more immunity you really need to have in order to combat that variant, which is why right now we're really pushing to get more people vaccinated and more people boosted to really boost that immunity in every single individual."
"We're really hopeful that our vaccines will work in a way that even if they don't prevent disease entirely, prevent infection entirely, that they can work to protect severe disease and keep people out of the hospital," she added.
Walensky isn't the only top health official who still has a cautiously optimistic outlook on tackling Omicron. During a Dec. 2 interview with CNN, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, also said that despite the new variant, we're already in a much better position to take on the virus than ever before.
"We are in such a different place now than we were one year ago because we've learned a lot more," he said. "We have vaccines available. We have far more tests available, and what we've got to do to get through this winter is to make sure that we are doubling down on our vaccination strategy," adding that continuing to use prevention methods such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and hand washing would still likely provide an added level of protection against Omicron.