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Omicron is spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the President and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week the variant will "find just about everyone." He reminded people about the importance of getting vaccinated. "Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody," Dr. Fauci told J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Those who have been vaccinated … and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death." As the surge continues to rage through the country, Eat This, Not That! Health talked to Dr. Katie Passaretti, MD, vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist at Atrium Health about where Omicron is most contagious and why the variant is causing hospitalization rates to go up. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Concerts and Indoor Sporting Events
Dr. Passaretti explains, "Omicron and really all strains of COVID spread MOST effectively in crowded areas, enclosed spaces, especially those with poor ventilation. Concerts and indoor sporting events are where I would stay away from. Spectators at either event are yelling, shouting and singing. They are emitting respiratory secretions that as we know fly freely to the people around you."
Bars and Indoor Parties
Dr. Passaretti suggests, "Crowded bars and indoor parties are another place I would avoid. When people take their masks off to eat or drink that is a barrier coming down that prevents the spread of omicron. Also, people tend to be in close proximity at these events. If there is food that is out for people to choose from that is another opportunity for there to be transmission. Stay masked up as much as possible if you are considering being at one of these locations."
Crowded Offices and Workspace
"Crowded workplaces are not always avoidable," Dr. Passaretti says. "While many employers are having employees work remotely, there are some jobs that must be done in person. Sometimes where these jobs are there is little chance for optimal distancing from other employees or customers. For people at these jobs, I would also have them consider double masking with a medical grade mask and any other type of mask on top."
Why Vaccination Helps
The vaccine for COVID has been effective in preventing death and severe illness and with Omicron so highly contagious, Dr. Passaretti urges people to get vaxxed, especially if you're in an Omicron hotspot like the places mentioned above. "For all of these locations, people must consider getting vaccinated and boosted if they are already fully vaccinated. Each of the vaccines have been proven to be effective in preventing the likelihood of becoming seriously ill and unfortunately hospitalized."
Why Fully Vaccinated and Boosted People are Getting Omicron
Dr. Passaretti states, "Vaccines and boosters are not 100% effective in the best of circumstances, but they do a very good job at what we need them to do, which is prevent severe disease and hospitalization. In order to stem the tide of Omicron, people need to mask up, even consider double masking since it is extremely transmissible. Do whatever you can to keep yourself safe and away from areas that may make you vulnerable to getting Omicron."
Why Omicron so Much More Contagious than COVID
According to Dr. Passaretti, "Omicron is the newest strain of COVID but it's still the COVID virus – different strains act differently due to mutations or changes in the genetic makeup that can impact things like how well the virus binds to human cells or how well it evades our immune system. Both of these factors can impact how easily the virus is spread in a population or transmissibility. We are still learning about omicron, but early data suggests that omicron may spread more than other recent variants because it is somewhat better at evading our immune system. Vaccines and prior infection still help protect the individual but not quite as well as we have seen with prior COVID variants and that allows it to spread more effectively."
If Omicron Isn't as Severe as COVID, Why are Hospitalization Rates Up?
Dr. Passaretti explains, "We are still learning about the severity of illness with omicron but early data from South Africa and the UK do suggest that less people end up severely ill. Having said that the increased transmissibility and marked increase in cases still translates into more people being hospitalized. In addition, our vaccination rates in the US and certainly booster uptake leave a lot to be desired. Yet again we are seeing our hospitals fill up with unvaccinated individuals who get infected with Omicron. This combination of vaccination and booster rates being lower than we'd like and an increased number of cases/transmissibility translates into a very challenging situation in healthcare right now."
How to Stay Safe Out There
Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.