Just when we thought we might get a holiday respite after COVID-19′s delta variant surge in late fall, we’ve been greeted by a new visitor known as omicron. As we make our way through the Greek alphabet of horrors, it’s understandable that Alaskans are weary of having to get up to speed on each of the new variants. But it’s worth paying attention to omicron and knowing a few things about it. Here’s a rundown on why you should be paying attention — but not panicking.
A faster spread
The defining characteristic of the omicron variant is its many mutations of the spike proteins on the outside of the virus shell. This is the aspect of the virus that the vaccines imitate and that antibodies from previous infections use to help identify and target COVID-19 invaders, so that’s bad news for everyone — it makes omicron better able to reinfect people who have had the disease before, and makes the protection from the vaccine less effective — but still very good at preventing serious cases and hospitalizations, especially if you’ve received a booster.
The other bad news is that omicron absolutely rips through population centers, at a speed unlike any other variant so far. The chart of its rise in South Africa, where it was first tracked in November, was a near-vertical line. It has since spread around the globe, sweeping into prominence in Europe and hitting the U.S. East Coast like a tsunami. Already, nationwide COVID numbers are rising again after tailing off from the fall delta surge — we should be prepared to see rapid growth in case numbers across the U.S. as 2022 arrives.
The same surge will hit Alaska; indeed, omicron is already here, as evidenced by two cases sequenced so far by the state Department of Health and Social Services. We can assume that others yet to be found are circulating in the community, and we’ll soon see far more than a handful. The omicron variant’s signature trait, beyond its mutations, is the speed at which it replicates — researchers have found up to 70 times more copies of the virus in omicron-infected tissue than in previous variants, and data suggests the time it takes for people to become infectious and symptoms to appear is also considerably shorter — perhaps as quickly as one day, where previous variants took about three days for symptoms to manifest themselves.
It’s not all bad news
But as strange as it sounds, and despite its ominous-sounding name, there’s some reason for optimism about omicron — some of its unique traits may work to our advantage.
First and foremost, data is emerging that omicron may not result in hospitalization and death as often as previous variants. It’s still early to tell definitively, particularly because vaccines lower that risk of hospitalization or death, and many people are vaccinated now. That’s a strong argument to get vaccinated — or get a booster, if you haven’t yet. In any event, fewer people in the hospital is great news — particularly given the speed with which omicron travels.
Second, the very speed that makes omicron spread so quickly looks like it may make it burn out quicker. In South Africa, which saw the earliest spike of omicron-variant cases, the number of new infections are now dropping like a rock, making for a far more compressed COVID wave. And, at least in theory, the vast number of people with new antibodies from omicron will have greater protection against it and other variants in the next few months. That could give us more time to get folks vaccinated, develop enhanced vaccines and treatments against resistant strains, and keep new variants from getting a foothold. It won’t be the end of COVID, but it could well be a new phase where we’re finally able to press our advantage against the virus.
Here’s what to do
By far, our best weapon against omicron is vaccination — if you or others you know have yet to get a vaccine shot, please do. Each dose helps bolster our community’s protection, protecting not only the person who receives the vaccine but also helping keep COVID-19 from reaching people who can’t get vaccinated yet or who are particularly at risk if they should get a breakthrough case. Likewise, if you’ve been vaccinated but have yet to receive a booster dose, now’s the time — getting a booster greatly increases protection against omicron. And while natural immunity helps, it is shown to wane over time, and omicron appears to be very effective at evading antibodies from previous infections — the first U.S. death from omicron was an unvaccinated, previously infected man. Even if you’ve had COVID, you should be vaccinated and boosted.
We should also be realistic about the fact that the omicron wave will be sizable regardless of the precautions we take: Many people, even those who have been vaccinated and those who don’t take many risks in who they contact, will get COVID-19. We’re already seeing this on the East Coast and in European countries with considerably stricter health mandates than anything that will be employed here. Make a plan for what you’ll do if you or another member of your family gets sick now, before it happens.
This doesn’t mean you need to cancel all your holiday plans and become a hermit, nor does it mean you should adopt a fatalist perspective and dispense with all precautions whatsoever. It also doesn’t mean that we should return to government-imposed restrictions, closures or mandates. What it does mean is that each of us Alaskans must do our part by taking the precautions we can — vaccination, masking in public, proper hygiene, reducing unnecessary contact with others outside your home — and be cognizant of the risks you do choose to take. Christmas isn’t canceled, and we may be lucky enough that the holiday takes place before omicron starts spreading here in earnest.
A year ago, the first vaccines were being administered, and there was hope for combating COVID-19 that we hadn’t had before. At the end of 2021, we’re not as close to the end of the pandemic as all of us hoped, but we’re closer — we’re driving down hospitalizations and deaths as more vaccines and treatments become available, and the omicron wave may speed us toward a less deadly future for the disease.