The Dangers of the New COVID Variant: Omicron

Within the past few weeks, there has been a sudden spike in COVID cases, as we probably all know with the sudden virtual learning days here at Hunterdon Central. This can be attributed to the new highly transmissible variant: Omicron. This new coronavirus variant was discovered in South Africa in November and has been detected in every US state, as well as more than 80 countries. This variant has become the new “Variant of Concern.” In the US, Omicron cases went from none to accounting for 73% of all cases. 

There’s a lot that scientists don’t know about Omicron; however, there is early evidence that it passes more easily than the other variants and that it could be more severe than the Delta variant. The New York Times states that, “The Omicron is two to three times more likely to spread as Delta.” It has surged around the world and has become less susceptible to vaccines. The cases for Omicron are doubling from two to four everyday. With this pace it has become the dominant variant in the country and may possibly put hospital systems to their final breaking point. Many researchers are still trying to figure out why this variant spreads so quickly. One leading possibility is that it can invade faster and another possibility is that it can multiply once it is inside the cell.

This variant is detected with PCR and antigen tests, but does not show up on rapid tests. Getting vaccinated and the booster shot continues to protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death, though catching COVID is still possible while still being fully vaccinated. Many studies state that full vaccination plus the booster shot provides a strong enough protection against infection with Omicron. However, without the booster, just two doses of the vaccines will not be as sufficient and will provide less protection. Overall, vaccines work. In addition to producing antibodies, the vaccine can help this particular disease and can help stimulate the growth of T cells. The job of T cells is to detect when other cells are infected with specific antigens and process to destroy them. 

Several courses of action have been taken by governments to help protect their citizens. Europe has increased their travel restrictions. The definition of “fully vaccinated” has been changed to two initial doses as well as a booster. 

This variant has caused global mayhem. The economy crashed after the variant was discovered, COVID cases in the UK are at an all time high since the beginning of the pandemic, travel restrictions are back in place in certain areas, and US hospitals are nearly at capacity. Schools, such as our own, may need to shut down and go virtual again. Testing sites have lines that have people waiting for hours. At-home tests are sold out nearly everywhere. This is, obviously, an issue, since testing is necessary to know for sure if you have COVID and lack of testing can lead to the disease spreading even more. The holidays are also a big concern. People are finally comfortable with traveling to see family members and friends they haven’t seen in a long time. This could lead to a huge spike in cases, since there are no travel restrictions in the US thus far. 

The best way to protect yourself is by wearing a mask, getting fully vaccinated, and social distancing. Especially during the holidays, it is important to be very cautious and think of yourself and others. In order for us to get back to life being normal again, we all have to work together to decrease the amount of cases by complying with mask mandates, testing when exposed, and following other health guidelines. Stay safe and healthy!