What You Should Know About the Latest COVID-19 Variant
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This article was updated on Jan. 3, 2022, and will continue to be updated as new information emerges.
Experts have warned that an omicron surge of COVID-19 is likely to happen in early 2022. The good news appears to be that if you are vaccinated, you are still less likely to experience severe symptoms if you contract the omicron variant.
When a virus replicates, mutations occur in its genetic material. This explains how variants persist as a normal part of virus development. Mutations can be harmful or, in rare cases, helpful to viruses. Mutations that are harmful to a virus mean they help destroy the virus, whereas mutations that are helpful to a virus enable its transformation. Variants differ amongst viruses and can be more destructive and spreadable. Variants can also be recessive. The mutations that have occurred with COVID-19 have helped the virus become more transmissible.
Omicron appears to be more contagious than its predecessor, the delta variant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Omicron variant now makes up 3 percent of cases in the U.S. The first case in the U.S. was reported in California on Dec. 1, 2021.
In a COVID-19 follow-up published in “The New York Times,” Dr. Paul Sax of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts said, “When Omicron enters a community, the increase in case numbers looks like a vertical line.” Experts explain the reason cases increase so dramatically when omicron enters a community is because this variant causes more breakthrough cases (i.e. positive COVID-19 tests among those who have been vaccinated) compared to previous variants. However, reports suggest that the likelihood of developing severe illness due to omicron is slim among vaccinated individuals.
What can I do to stay healthy as omicron concerns grow?
Experts continue to advise and encourage the general public to get vaccines and booster shots as quickly as possible, as they anticipate omicron being difficult to contain as it spreads. Since people who get vaccinated are less likely to develop severe complications or death if they contract variants like omicron, hospitalizations are less likely to occur. The BBC reports that people catching omicron are 50-70 percent less likely to need hospital care. Still, that doesn’t mean people catching omicron are unaffected. Vaccines should also help to alleviate the burdens healthcare workers face when facilities become overcrowded with COVID-19 patients.
Where does the pandemic stand today?
As of Dec. 16, 2021, 201 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (61.1 percent of the population). To achieve the herd immunity threshold, the Cleveland Clinic reports that 75-85 percent of the world’s population will need to be vaccinated. Though vaccination rates are progressing, the U.S. still has a ways to go to contain COVID-19 more fully.
On Dec. 14, 2021, NPR reported that 800,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020. Cases have surpassed 50 million altogether in the United States alone.
The death rate has also worsened recently. The CDC reported that average deaths from COVID-19 are equal to slightly over 1,000 per day since Dec. 3, 2021. Data from “The Washington Post” concurs, showing the average death rate in the U.S. climbing to 1,000 deaths per day in late August 2021, up to over 2,000+ per day by September, trickling down to roughly under 1,000 in late November and rising again in December to 1,200+ deaths per day. The COVID-19 death toll has doubled since early 2021, according to the same report. Data from John Hopkins University shows 60,000 new cases and 671 deaths in the past 28 days (as of Dec. 14, 2021). This is largely due to the impact of the delta variant; the overall impact from the omicron variant is yet to be seen.
Per the pandemic’s continuation, experts have begun to debate what “fully vaccinated” means by today’s standards, noting the effectiveness of two shots is less compared to those who’ve had two shots, plus their booster. Mixed data is still coming in about which types of vaccines are most effective against omicron. So far, data shows that current vaccines are more likely to protect against developing severe sickness that occurs as a result of contracting COVID-19 variants versus protection from contracting the virus itself. Vaccinated people may still contract more transmissible variants like omicron but are less likely to suffer from contracting it compared to the unvaccinated.
Breakthrough cases have been rare throughout the course of the pandemic, and especially among those who have received boosters amid the spread of the delta variant.
Marm Kilpatrick from the University of California, Santa Cruz, shared in a Reuters News update that protection against severe disease was 86 percent against omicron if you’ve been recently vaccinated with a “Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response inside our bodies.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mRNA.html?s_cid=11344:what%20is%20mrna%20vaccine:sem.ga:p:RG:GM:gen:PTN:FY21mRNA vaccine, 67 percent if you’ve been vaccinated at an earlier time and 91 percent if you’ve been vaccinated and have also recently received a third booster shot.
Vaccine effectiveness wanes over time, and, according to a report from Yale Medicine, may depend on the individual. mRNA vaccines should be effective for at least one year, per the report. Consider that timeline as you evaluate your own protection against COVID-19 and whether a booster may be your best option. Boosters can be administered six months after your last vaccination.
What should you do now?
The pandemic is difficult for many people across the world, for many different reasons. It has caused grief, fear and loss beyond measure. On top of your physical health, it’s important to watch out for your mental health at this time.
When you can, step away from your devices, enjoy nature and connect with others comfortably and safely. Keep offering support to each other throughout this time. No one is in it alone.
Learn all about COVID-19 health and safety protocols and get the latest news and insights for people with diabetes here.