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What We Know About Omicron

 

Although it sounds like it should be the name of the next hero or villain that enters the Hollywood scene, Omicron has become the next coronavirus variant to make its way around the world. It’s still relatively new to the United States and other countries where it’s steadily making its way. So, here we go again – another mutation and variant of a virus that we have been battling with for nearly two years in the United States.

COVID-19 infection rates have been at its lowest in a long time. However, when new variants pop up, it could be cause for concern. Will this new variant work with the vaccine? Does this new variant spread more quickly than the last? Does this variant cause more infections than previous variants? 

With the Omicron variant being still fairly new, there is a lot we are finding out about the new variant each day. However, there are also still a lot of unknowns and research being done to try to answer questions and concerns. But for now, we are going to start with what we know.

What do we know so far?

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We know the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this variant has a tendency to spread more easily than other variants, including Delta. They noted, “due to the small number of cases, the current severity of illness and death associated with this variant is unclear.”

As with any virus, the CDC states that breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated can be expected. However, vaccines are still effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and even death. They also explained that even if you are fully vaccinated, early research has shown it can still be easily spread from person to person. And, the CDC continues on to explain that some monoclonal antibody treatments may not be as effective if you were to become infected with the Omicron virus. 

The CDC also indicates that as we continue into the future, new variants of the virus are expected to keep popping up and finding their way into our lives. However, the CDC says, “Taking measures to reduce the spread of infection is the best way to slow the emergence of new variants.”

So, what causes a virus to mutate and change in the first place? Let’s talk about the background of how a virus mutates, which can lead us to a better understanding of how a virus works.

What causes a virus to change?

mutating virus image

Interestingly enough, a virus needs a host to survive, which is why it enters your body, attaches to a cell and it reproduces and spreads. And the more a virus spreads throughout the public, the more it changes. In fact, all viruses change at some point or another, but they don’t all change at the same rate – hence why we have to get a new flu vaccine every year.

Did you know there’s a difference between a mutation, a variant and a strain of viruses? According to UnityPoint Health, here is the difference:

  • Mutation: When a virus replicates, and the end copy has difference (in DNA or RNA), those differences are mutations
  • Variant: When you accumulate enough mutations, you get a variant
  • Strain: When you can prove a variant truly has new biological capabilities, then you can call it a strain

Viruses begin to change and mutate when three different changes happen: First, the virus can change just purely by error or accident; second, the virus could change because of pressure from select cells in the body; and third, the virus could mutate when there is a creation of a vaccine. The goal of the virus is to spread, and as the vaccine emerges, it makes it harder to spread causing the virus to sometimes mutate.  

When a virus changes or mutates, it’s important to understand how the change impacts people to determine whether or not vaccines will still work and if tests can still identify the active virus. Only with time can more answers about the virus be made and more research done to fully understand the extent of the situations we are currently facing. In the meantime, however, it’s good to focus on what you can do as an individual to help yourself and your family and ultimately help slow the spread of the virus. 

What are ways to help against catching the virus?

At this point, everyone should know the drill. The world has lived through the height of a terrible pandemic and is far from over, hence the new variant spreading through the country. And unfortunately, the virus will continue to spread and change and create new ways to make us get less sleep at night. 

There are few things, according to the CDC, that you can do to help slow the spread of the virus and help put your mind at ease:

  • Vaccines: While vaccines reduce your risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, we don’t yet know how effective they will be against new variants that may arise, including Omicron
  • Symptoms: Similar symptoms of COVID-19 can also be found in all previous variants; however, some variants, such as the Alpha and Delta variants, might be more severe and cause worse illness and possible death
  • Masks: Wearing a mask is an effective way to reduce the spread of earlier forms of the virus, the Delta variant and other known variants; people who are not fully vaccinated should take steps to protect themselves, including wearing a mask indoors in public at all levels of community transmission; people who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission; wearing a mask is important if you or someone in your household has a weakened immune system, has an underlying medical condition, is an older adult and is not fully vaccinated
  • Testing: Tests used to detect COVID-19 may not tell you which variant you have; as new variants emerge, scientists will continue to evaluate how well tests work to detect current infection

When the coronavirus first arrived nearly two years ago, the world was in a state of panic as a new virus swept across the country making lives difficult. Now, we have to face a new battle ahead as the virus changes and mutates into variants and strains that might be worse than what we’ve experienced before. But before we get too caught up in the future, it’s good to focus on what’s in front of you. 

While it’s easy to dive into the future and begin to worry about what might lie ahead, it’s good to keep your feet on the ground in the present and focus on keeping yourself and your family safe and healthy. Try to turn off the news every now and again, do your own research from non-biased, fact-driven articles that give helpful facts and now distort reality, and most importantly, do your part to help. By doing your part and making sure you are safe, you are also taking the initiative and taking precautionary steps towards the people around you.