As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, each day seems to bring a new batch of confusing terminology and conflicting information. Covid variants pop up and disappear or stick around and dominate the news cycle. “Omicron” has recently become a buzzword in the latest COVID-19 news…but what exactly is Omicron and is it something to be concerned about? We’ll explore these answers and more.
“Omicron virus” and “Omicron variant” refer to the same thing: a new mutation of the SARS-CoV-19 virus. As with all viruses, new variants are expected to occur as the virus will constantly change through mutation as it passes from person to person. Some variants will disappear, while others will stay active.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), variants are monitored and classified as variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern and variants of high consequence. Variants are classified based on how easily it spreads, how severe the symptoms are, how it responds to treatment, and how well vaccines protect against it.
As of January of 2022, there are nine strains of COVID-19 designated as variants being monitored (VBM) by the CDC and two variants designated as a variant of concern (VOC).
The CDC does not consider strains classified as VBM to pose a significant and imminent risk to public health in the United States. VOCs, however, are closely monitored due to increased transmissibility, more severe disease, increased hospitalizations or deaths, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, and more.
Omicron and Delta are currently the two COVID-19 variants designated as variants of concern.
The Omicron variant was first identified in November of 2021 in Botswana, and was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by experts in South Africa. This region had a spike in COVID-19 cases, leading to the discovery of Omicron. Studies are ongoing, but early evidence suggests that there may be a higher risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant. Omicron is now considered the dominant strain in the United States.
Yes, which is why public health organizations use a classification scale to rate how dangerous each variant is. Looking at the current mutations of the SARS-CoV-19 virus, there are only two variants (Omicron and Delta) considered dangerous, with nine that are not.
Yes, Omicron is considered a variant of concern due to the potential for increased transmissibility and the apparent resistance to some antibody treatments and the COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC identified the potential for a rapid increase in infections of this variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the United State, and data backs up this prediction as COVID-19 cases hit an all time high in the first week of January 2022 with more than 15 million cases reported across the world.
On Tuesday, January 4, 2022, the United States hit an all time high for COVID-19 hospitalizations with 145,982 people in hospitals with COVID-19, passing the previous record of 142,273 on January 14, 2021.
When comparing Omicron vs. Delta, it is important to note that both of these variants are considered VOCs and are being monitored closely by public health organizations. As with any COVID-19 infection, it is important to take this virus seriously and follow the guidelines for quarantine and testing. Taking precautions like wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently, and minimizing the amount of time spent in public areas can help slow the spread of all COVID-19 variants.
Studies are still being done to understand the similarities and differences of Omicron and Delta. The current data suggests that Omicron symptoms may be less severe (although still serious) than Delta symptoms, but Omicron seems to have a higher transmission rate, particularly among vaccinated people. A Danish study in December of 2021 found that Omicron was 2.7 to 3.7 times more infectious than Delta among vaccinated Danes.
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