World health leaders are warning that omicron, the new COVID variant discovered in late November, could cause a global surge in new cases with “severe consequences.” Researchers around the world are working tirelessly to learn everything they can about this newest iteration of the virus, which boasts a “Frankenstein mix” of mutations, including more than 30 on the all-important spike protein.
Right now, there are more questions than answers. We don’t know if the variant is more transmissible. We don’t know whether it makes people sicker. And we don’t know how well our current vaccines will hold up.
All of this uncertainty can definitely be unsettling for people who’ve spent the last two years coping with pandemic curveball after curveball. Are you wondering what the newest variant means for you and your family, and what symptoms you should be on the lookout for now? Here’s what we know so far.
Preliminary reports suggest that the symptoms of omicron might be milder.
The first doctor to alert health authorities about omicron — who has treated about two dozen patients infected with the variant — told The Telegraph last week that the symptoms in the patients she saw were surprising to her and relatively benign.
“Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,” Dr. Angelique Coetze told the outlet. Most of her patients were just extremely tired, and one young child had an elevated heart rate. None lost their sense of taste or smell.
But experts are not breathing easy yet. Even as the virus has been identified in 20 countries, including now in the United States, there is simply too little data to say how contagious omicron is compared to previous versions of the virus. There’s also not enough info yet on whether it’s more or less likely than previous variants, like delta, to cause severe illness.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know about this new variant,” Dr. Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious disease physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told HuffPost. Experts will be looking closely at how the virus affects people based on their age, their underlying immune status and whether or not they’re vaccinated, he said.
If you’re experiencing any classic COVID symptoms or have been exposed, get tested ASAP.
Given that it’s still too soon to say whether there are particular symptoms more likely to be linked to omicron, you should be on the lookout for the most common symptoms of COVID up to this point in the pandemic: fever or chills, cough, runny nose, headache or muscle aches, gastrointestinal issues and loss of taste or smell.
People who have symptoms of COVID should absolutely get tested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes those who are fully vaccinated.
And you should also get tested if you’re not experiencing symptoms, but have come into close contact with someone who has COVID. (Fully vaccinated people should wait five to seven days; those who are not fully vaccinated should get tested immediately and then again several days later.)
Keep in mind that we’re deep in respiratory virus season, and health officials have warned that the flu cases are on the rise right now, particularly among younger people. There have also been unusual spikes in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. The symptoms of all of those illnesses can present quite similarly to COVID, so testing is critical.
PCR tests continue to be the gold standard, while rapid antigen tests are less reliable. Still experts say they can be useful to give you a sense of whether you’re contagious on the day you take them, and at-home kits should become more readily available over the next month as the Biden administration has aimed to quadruple availability by December.
Masking up and getting boosted are crucial.
Experts like Sobhanie said we should have more concrete information on omicron and whether it is likely to cause more severe illness in the next several weeks. He acknowledged how difficult it can be to wait, particularly as we head into the holiday season when families have questions about travel and get-togethers.
“There is going to be this stream of data that comes up — a little bit here, a little bit here, a little bit here. But you can’t make policy decisions, and you can’t make clinical decisions, on a little bit of data,” Sobhanie said. “You really need to have all the facts.”
For now, experts say the most important thing people can do is stick with the preventive measures that have worked so far: wear a mask when you’re in public indoor settings with substantial or high transmission. Right now, that’s still pretty much the whole country.
Also, get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and get boosted. The CDC has stepped up its recommendation in response to the threat of omicron to stave off serious illness, even if breakthrough infections become more common.
“What do we know has worked before? We know the vaccines have been very effective against the Delta variant. We know that masking works. And I know it’s very difficult, but we just have to wait now and see what the data shows,” Sobhanie said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.