Five things about omicron that I want my friends and family to know

As a health journalist who has written on the coronavirus since early January 2020, I often receive questions about the pandemic. But after the omicron variant appeared last month, these questions became more urgent – with some readers complaining about mixed messages about the new variant and existing vaccines – and deeply personal, as friends and family tried to plan. their winter vacation.

Over the weekend, I wrote a post on Facebook trying to distill what I heard from experts and officials as they rushed to fight the new variant. A slightly edited version of this message appears here.

1. Omicron may not be “gentle” on unvaccinated people.

The omicron variant is real, and reports that it is “softer” seems primarily based on generally mild breakthrough cases in people who have been vaccinated and previously infected.

If you have been vaccinated and boosted, there is reason to believe that your omicron infection will cause minimal symptoms.

If you have never been infected and have not been vaccinated, there is no reason to expect a “mild” case yet.

Experts have warned, over and over again: Most of the pain will be felt by Americans who are not vaccinated, whose immunity has been waned from previous vaccines and who have not yet been stimulated, or who are immunocompromised.

But anyone who swears that omicron will surely lead to a mild case in a vaccinated person is too promising. Again, there are good reasons to expect this, but we don’t have the data to know for sure. This variant was only detected a month ago. Researchers are eager to follow and study it in real time.

And the picture of the foreigner isn’t always clear, especially because the demographics in southern Africa, where the omicron first exploded, doesn’t quite match the older American population.

2. Prepare for a positive test result. Omicron’s mutations make it very transmissible.

Scores of people who have been vaccinated or previously infected will test positive over the next few weeks, given the sheer transmissibility of the omicron variant and its ability to evade antibodies.

Every expert I interviewed, including some of the country’s top health officials, has adjusted their mindset and is now mentally preparing to test positive after spending two years dodging the virus. The “breakthrough” cases are going to be normalized quickly, if they are not already.

To put it very simply, while earlier forms of the virus stopped at the front door of your body if you were “fully vaccinated” or had previously been infected, omicron can get inside. Still, vaccines and boosters have the power to fight the worst consequences of omicron and fight infections. It is possible that some people reading this may have omicron right now and not know it because their immune systems are doing such a good job of containing the infection and symptoms are weak or nonexistent.

3. This is exactly what boosters are used for.

Boosters can specifically help by bringing your antibodies down to a level where there are enough of them, like bouncers in a club, to often prevent the omicron from getting inside.

Emphasizing this point: Boosters are one of the best tools for repelling omicron, according to all the studies done so far.

We also have much better tests than at the start of 2020 – although the US has dropped the issue of ensuring access to rapid tests, as anyone looking for a test has now experienced. There is a monoclonal antibody treatment that seems to always work against omicron, but it is rare.

4. Expect hospitals to be pushed to their limits.

Federal officials are bracing for infections in the United States to skyrocket through January 2022, with numbers that could exceed 500,000 new cases per day. (The previous peak was 250,000 cases per day in January 2021.) Some experts are predicting daily case rates that could be much higher, as many vaccinated Americans are going to test positive, although we cannot capture all of them. data from people taking self-tests at home.

Even if only a small percentage of these people need hospital care, it will strain a healthcare system that is already strained by pandemic fatigue and the handling of cases related to the old delta variant. It’s also going to be a psychological blow after the past two years of battling the pandemic, and businesses, families and others are sure to rush to adjust their plans.

5. Upgrade your mask and think twice before taking risks. This month will be crucial.

Authorities hope the peak of the omicron wave will be over in early February.

An increase in covid cases is followed a few days later by an increase in hospitalizations, which is followed a few days later by an increase in deaths. This has been the constant pattern for two years.

As a result, next month in America could rival the worst days of the pandemic, as a simple wave of cases crashes into our country. Every expert I’ve spoken to is cutting back on planned plans, and several have urged: don’t take risks that could land you in a doctor’s office or hospital emergency room at a time when the demand is on. our health care system will increase.

If you are passing through an airport or train station, you are undoubtedly exposed to someone with omicron at this point.

As someone who’s boosted and wearing an N95 mask indoors, I feel like I’m taking the best possible precautions. I am also exhausted from the pandemic and had started to return to hobbies like swimming, going to the movies, dining with friends.

But for me, the omicron variant means I’m going to put some of these activities on hold, and I’m going to make sure I always have a high-quality mask with me for navigating crowds and indoor spaces. Even though infections are inevitable, I don’t want to help omicron, especially until we have more data in the coming weeks. And I don’t want to unwittingly get sick and pass an infection on to my family members this holiday season.

Dan Diamond is a national health reporter for the Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2021 after five years at Politico, where he won a George Polk Award for investigating the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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