As students prepare to return home for winter break, headlines of the new Omicron variant have heightened fears of a possible next chapter in the pandemic saga. With over 30 identified mutations in the coronavirus’ infamous spike protein, the Omicron variant appears to be more transmissible than even the Delta variant. Over 20 US states have confirmed Omicron cases, and the US has joined a number of other countries in restricting travel from eight countries in southern Africa. As The New York Times front page asked this week, “Should we be worried?”
Unfortunately, there are few concrete answers available — we simply do not know enough about the Omicron variant at this point. Though some early data suggests that Omicron is more transmissible, it also seems to suggest that Omicron may not lead to more severe cases. However, it’s still early — we just do not have all the information we need yet to analyze the threat posed by Omicron.
Dr. Ann Taylor, Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Chemistry, discussed reactions to the new Omicron variant.
“I think right now… there’s a lot of Chicken Little stuff happening,” said Taylor. “Yes, there’s a new variant. But what we know are the things we can do to prevent it are the same,” said Taylor. “I think try to keep somewhat calm about it, but know that there are things that you can do — the same things of watching your contact with large crowds and people you don’t know, washing your hands, and paying attention to what’s going on around you — those are things that will protect you anywhere.”
The fears over the Omicron variant come at a time when the US is not “in a good place,” as National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told the Senate on Tuesday.
“We’re not in a terribly good place right now,” said Collins. “Following Thanksgiving, we’re seeing cases going up again, now over 100,000 new cases every day, and we didn’t want to be there. And hospitalizations are also going up, and sadly, deaths now in excess of 1,000 every day, the vast majority of those being unvaccinated people.”
Dr. Taylor discussed the steps Wabash students can take to limit Omicron’s threat. And for the most part, they match the best practices students have become accustomed to throughout the pandemic.
“I think all the same things that we’ve been talking about the whole way along: vaccination, ventilation, hand washing, distancing, masking — those are all the tools we have to deal with this,” said Taylor.
Vaccination also plays a large role. Though over 95% of the Wabash campus community is vaccinated, only 51% of Indiana is fully vaccinated. The data from Montgomery County is even more striking. Only 43% of Montgomery County residents are fully vaccinated, and The New York Times classifies the county as an “extremely high-risk county.”
The disparity matters. Unprotected friends and family members jeopardize not only themselves, but everyone. Not only do they increase the risk for immunocompromised individuals, by refusing the vaccine, they increase the risk posed by the Omicron variant and future additional variants.
“If you have family members or friends who are not vaccinated yet, them being vaccinated helps protect you. So talking about your experience and encouraging your friends and family to also be vaccinated… whatever you can do to encourage your friends to get on the vaccine bus,” said Taylor. For students seeking more information on covid-19 vaccines or general information about the pandemic, Taylor recommended dearpandemic.org and the Your Local Epidemiologist blog.
Amongst the general theme of same best practices, one newer practice seems to increase defense against Omicron: booster shots.
“Boosters are looking like they prevent infection,” said Taylor. And as we have more and more students who are passing that six months since their initial vaccination, we’d encourage people to get a booster shot.”
The 620 people vaccinated on campus last spring have passed their six months threshold, and can now receive their booster shots.
“If you were vaccinated at that April clinic, you’re now eligible to get a booster, and you might want to do it over break just so that you’re well protected for the spring semester,” said Taylor.
However, some speculate that mutations in the Omicron variant’s spike protein may allow it to evade the vaccine more easily. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told reporters that, if a new vaccine becomes necessary to fight Omicron, Pfizer could have the update finished by early spring.
“I think that if there is a need for the vaccine, we will have a vaccine in March,” said Bourla. “I don’t know if there will be a need for a vaccine — we’ll know that in a few weeks.”
At this point, the name of the Omicron game is patience. As Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Tuesday, critical information about Omicron’s threat is soon to come.
“I would imagine it will take at least another couple of weeks before we have a good handle and then a really good handle a few weeks thereafter,” said Fauci. “So, I would say we shouldn’t be making any definitive conclusions, certainly not before the next couple of weeks.”