It’s the holiday surprise no one wanted: We are now well into yet another surge of COVID-19 cases, thanks to the new omicron variant.
This unwelcome news comes almost two years into the pandemic, and after the delta variant spread throughout the country, leading to high case levels that are getting even higher.
“This is going to be a very difficult winter as cases infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19 spike high,” says UNC Health infectious diseases specialist Dr. David Wohl. “We are ready for this pandemic to be done, but it is hardly done with us.”
The good news? We have widely available vaccines and boosters that can continue to protect us. Read on to learn more.
1. Vaccines, especially boosters, continue to offer important protection.
There is good evidence from laboratory studies and reports coming from places first hit by omicron that vaccines still protect against infection and severe disease due to this variant.
Booster shots have been shown to be particularly helpful; researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital published a new study, not yet peer-reviewed, that shows mRNA booster shots are highly effective at neutralizing omicron (that’s Pfizer and Moderna). They found that the blood from people who had the original shots but had not been boosted had less activity against the virus.
“The data are lining up to show that vaccines remain really key to avoid getting sick from omicron. They still work, and along with avoiding infection in the first place by being smart about interactions with other people, masking and distancing, vaccination and boosting is the best hope for limiting this surge,” Wohl says.
2. Omicron appears to be significantly more contagious than delta.
The speed at which omicron is spreading makes it clear that it is much more contagious than delta. Therefore, health officials are urging people to take extra precautions to avoid infection, even if you are vaccinated.
“The rate at which omicron has taken over delta is remarkable and shows how much more transmissible this variant is. What worked to avoid delta infection may not be enough to prevent catching omicron so people should be vigilant with masking and distancing, and, of course, being vaccinated,” Wohl advises.
There is hope that omicron could cause less severe disease than previous variants, but that hasn’t been proven. Even if that’s true, if omicron infection rates are high enough, there could still be a high rate of hospitalization and deaths, Wohl says. And omicron is not as responsive to current treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies.
3. Masks, avoiding crowds, physical distancing and testing still work to prevent omicron transmission.
The methods we’ve used since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to help prevent COVID-19 will still help us now. If you’re going to be around other people inside who are not from your household, particularly if some of those people might be unvaccinated or the group is a large one, wear a properly fitting mask over your mouth and nose.
People who have relaxed some of their COVID-19 precautions in recent months might want to be a bit more careful with omicron spreading. That means mask-wearing in the grocery store, avoiding crowded events or wearing a mask when visiting older relatives, for example.
Testing, including rapid at-home tests that can be bought at the drugstore, is helpful. If you are going to gather in a group or travel, it’s a good idea to get tested at a testing site — PCR tests are the most accurate — or do an at-home test. The at-home versions aren’t perfect, but they do a pretty good job of detecting infectious cases, Wohl says. If you test positive, you need to stay away from others and slow transmission.
And while COVID-19 is an airborne disease, keep up regular hand-washing and disinfection of surfaces, which will also help reduce the transmission of flu, RSV and other common winter infections. With health care systems already struggling to take care of patients with the delta variant and yet another surge at hand, it’s best for all of us to stay as healthy as possible.
“It is hard to be dealing with another winter of surging cases and hospitalization and pandemic precautions,” Wohl says. “But we have the tools to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safer. If we can keep this surge short, we will avoid lockdowns and other mitigations that none of us want to see again.”
Dr. David A. Wohl is a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the UNC School of Medicine. He is medical director of the UNC COVID-19 Monoclonal Antibody Infusion Clinic at Meadowmont and helps direct UNC Health’s COVID-19 vaccination activities.