Omicron 101: Everything you need to know to stay safe
Omicron cases are rising around the country. According to the CDC, the new COVID-19 variant already makes up 95% of new COVID infections in the United States. Health experts warn us that we may not return to our pre-pandemic lives just yet.
Even if you are fully vaccinated, breakthrough infections are possible, says the CDC. It can be exhausting to stay abreast of the latest news while living our daily lives.
Here's everything you need to know about the Omicron variant for vaccinated individuals and what you can do if you or a loved one is infected with the COVID-19 variant.
What's the latest on Omicron?
The good news is that Omicron is 70% less likely to cause hospitalizations versus the Delta variant, according to a preliminary U.K. Government study. Results from the study show that individuals affected with Omicron are also 31 – 45% less likely to need emergency services than the Delta variant.
A study from South Africa, where the variant was first discovered, concurs. Offering a glimmer of hope, the South African Government reported minimal deaths from Omicron infections on December 30, 2021. A government official stated that they passed their peak and compared Omicron infections to a "flash flood more than a wave."
In an interview, the CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, stated that many of the cases in the United States are mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic. This news may help us stay cautiously optimistic.
However, it is important to note that Omicron-related data is preliminary, and studies have not been peer-reviewed.
How contagious is the Omicron variant?
Here is where the problem lies. Omicron-related infections spread much faster than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and other variants like the Delta, according to a statement released by the World Health Organization (WHO). Even though, in general, symptoms appear to be more mild, this variant appears much more contagious. This causes local and regional overcapacity issues in hospitals and clinics, leading to dangerous conditions from a public health perspective.
This makes it essential to take reasonable precautions this winter and follow CDC-recommended guidelines for staying safe. These include wearing masks and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.
What are the symptoms of an Omicron infection?
According to the CDC, the symptoms of infection with the Omicron variant are:
- Continuous cough
- Sore throat or scratchy throat
- Runny nose
- Muscle pain
Are Omicron symptoms different from the COVID-19 virus and other variants?
Symptoms of infection from Omicron are similar to that of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, other variants, and even the common cold. However, the CDC notes that there can be slight differences.
According to Dr. Rob Rohatsch, MD, "Preliminary data from South Africa shows that infected individuals develop a sore throat and congestion. They may even have a dry cough and muscle pain like lower back pain." He adds, "These are also symptoms of Delta and the original COVID-19 virus. It may be too early to confirm differences between the two."
Individuals infected with Omicron may be less likely to lose a sense of taste and smell, unlike with previous variants. However, this may be due to protection from vaccines, and it is too soon to tell for sure. Research is underway.
Says Dr. Rohatsch, "Omicron is not the common cold. They may share similar symptoms, but an Omicron infection can become more severe. In certain individuals, it may even be fatal. Even with mild infections in low-risk individuals, Omicron is very contagious. You may run the risk of infecting people with a high-risk. This can potentially cause severe harm to that individual,” he goes on to say. “Omicron is causing our local and regional health systems to reach capacity and this is a problem. It is so contagious that it overwhelms a local area very quickly. It does not take a large percentage of high-risk folks getting very ill to overrun a hospital quickly. That is why we all need to be fully vaccinated and get the booster; it protects the vulnerable.”
Timely testing and the proper medical advice can help you navigate an Omicron infection and protect you and your loved ones.
How fast do symptoms appear?
Unlike previous variants, Omicron symptoms can appear as fast as three days after infection, according to the CDC. So, it is even more important to get tested as soon as symptoms appear.
The CDC notes that COVID-19 tests are most effective when symptoms begin. Getting tested within three days of a suspected infection can help you get the right medical advice. CDC data also shows that this can also help you mitigate the spread of the variant among members of your family, friends, co-workers, and communities.
How long is the quarantine period?
According to the CDC, the isolation period is five days from when a COVID-19 infection is suspected. 85-90% of transmission occurs in the 1-2 days before symptoms arise and 2-3 days after.
If asymptomatic or without fever for 24 hours, masks are recommended for the following five days. An N95 mask works best against Omicron, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Do COVID vaccines work against Omicron?
In Fully Vaccinated individuals
Fully vaccinated people can also get infected. Though symptoms are typically milder, there is a higher chance of breakthrough infections with Omicron versus previous variants, according to the CDC. Early results from the CDC show that COVID vaccines help lower disease severity but do not fully prevent infections from occurring. We need masks, social distancing, and other safety measures to continue to protect ourselves.
It is important to keep in mind that the goal for widespread vaccinations is not to ensure a specific individual does not get a mild case of COVID. Instead, the goal is to do our best to prevent spread to the clinically vulnerable, thereby preserving our clinical assets for those that need it.
People who are fully vaccinated and receive a booster dose have demonstrated the best resistance against Omicron. A study by Dr. David Ho, a renowned virologist and a Professor at Columbia University, suggests that booster doses may offer 85% protection against severe disease and hospitalizations. Results are preliminary.
There may be a silver lining for fully-vaccinated people who get infected by the Omicron variant. Researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University anticipate that breakthrough infections from Omicron will generate "super immunity" in vaccinated people. Note: though promising, the laboratory study involved a small number of individuals and is not peer-reviewed yet.
In unvaccinated individuals
According to the CDC, unvaccinated individuals are more likely to get infected and experience more severe symptoms from an Omicron infection. Additionally, the CDC notes that chances of hospitalization from infections are higher for this population.
Can fully-vaccinated people spread Omicron?
The short answer is yes. One case of Omicron has been shown to cause an average of three other infections, according to data from the CDC. The data suggests that the Omicron variant is highly effective at evading our immune systems. Even vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus to others.
Also, even though Omicron is beginning to dominate, the Delta variant is still around. COVID vaccines have proven effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and all other variants, notes the CDC.
Can Omicron infect people who already had COVID-19?
Prior COVID-19 infections do not guarantee protection from Omicron, according to early evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO). A UK study found that the risk of reinfection from Omicron is 5.4 times that of Delta.
How to protect yourself against Omicron and COVID-19? Do you need a booster shot?
If you are fully vaccinated, and it has been six months or more since your last dose, a booster dose is recommended (if you received the Pfizer vaccine, the CDC recommends that everyone 12 years and up receive the booster five months after the last dose).
Early data shows that boosters can protect against severe illness and symptomatic disease. According to a recent NBC news article, Pfizer lab tests showed that people’s levels of virus-fighting antibodies increased 25-fold after receiving a booster. Moderna’s currently FDA-approved 50 microgram booster was found to increase neutralizing antibody levels against omicron 37-fold compared to pre-boost levels.
If you are unvaccinated, it is advisable to consider getting fully vaccinated, per CDC recommendations. Even if you recovered from COVID-19 in the past, natural immunity varies significantly from person to person. The CDC notes that vaccines can offer more reliable protection.
What to do if you suspect an Omicron infection?
If you have symptoms
- If you have symptoms of a COVID-19 infection, the CDC recommends that you isolate at home and reach out to a healthcare provider. An at-home COVID test may offer a quick, preliminary check.
- If you prefer an at-home consultation from the safety of your home, consider a telemedicine consultation. Solv offers convenient telemedicine consults in 40+ states and nationwide urgent care locations for you and your loved ones.
- A Solv Plus membership offers you 24/7 easy and unlimited access to high-quality video visits with U.S. medical professionals all year round (*only available in select states).
If you do not have symptoms
- If you do not have any symptoms of infection but suspect possible exposure to COVID-19, Omicron, or other variants, the CDC suggests that you consider an at-home rapid antigen test as a first step. Please note that at-home tests may be less accurate in detecting COVID-19 compared to an RT-PCR test performed in a lab.
- If your test returns a positive result, a PCR lab test is recommended to rule out COVID-19. You may also consider a teleconsultation with a healthcare professional to ensure you and your loved ones receive the right treatment.
What is the best test for Omicron?
Data from the FDA suggests that at-home COVID-19 rapid antigen tests may be less effective at detecting the Omicron variant. However, think of these tests as the first line of defense. They are helpful when a quick check is required.
Dr. Rohatsch says, "Here's a good rule of thumb. If you develop symptoms of a COVID-19 infection like a sore throat or fever but an at-home test returns a negative result, get a PCR test to make sure."
According to the FDA, the PCR test is the most accurate at detecting COVID-19 infections. PCR stands for 'polymerase chain reaction.' This test requires specialized laboratory equipment. It detects the virus's unique genetic code but takes a little longer to return results.
Where can you get a COVID test?
- You may purchase an FDA-authorized at-home COVID test available at drugstores nationwide.
- You may find COVID testing near you using Solv’s hassle-free app.
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- COVID Data Tracker (December 30, 2021)
- COVID-19 Variants Identified in the U.K. (December 31, 2021)
- Cabinet Approves Several Changes to the Adjusted Alert Level 1 COVID-19 Regulations (December 30, 2021)
- ‘'We must adapt': CDC Defends New Isolation Guidance Amid Omicron Surge
- Enhancing Readiness for Omicron (B.1.1.529): Technical Brief and Priority Actions For Member States (December 23, 2021)
- CDC Updates and Shortens Recommended Isolation and Quarantine Period for General Population (December 27, 2021)
- Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know (December 20, 2021)
- Preprint: Striking Antibody Evasion Manifested by the Omicron Variant of SARS-CoV-2 (December 21, 2021)
- Omicron Largely Evades Immunity From Past Infection or Two Vaccine Doses (December 17, 2021)