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Omicron should not be called a mild variant of COVID-19

The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 quickly spread and infected people in a way never seen before in the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is still much to be learned about Omicron, there is nothing "mild" about this form of the virus. COVID-19 vaccination, a booster dose, and other prevention measures can help slow down transmission of the virus.

Omicron is very transmissible.

COVID-19 infection surged to very high levels in a relatively short period of time in many places around the world. Anyone infected with the Omicron variant can spread the virus to others, regardless of vaccination status or if they are experiencing symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How rapidly COVID-19 spreads depends on a number of factors including low vaccination rates, high-density housing, and minimal mask use in communities. 

Omicron is extremely contagious.

Omicron makes more copies of itself more quickly in the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat) than previous variants of COVID-19. This is what likely makes it more transmissible. 

While the Delta variant was also extremely contagious, and believed to cause more severe disease especially among unvaccinated people, it has relatively few differences in the spike protein in comparison to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. By contrast, Omicron has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein (more than 30), which has made it more difficult for antibodies to recognize it and latch on to the spike protein.

Omicron can cause severe disease.

While less people have been admitted to the ICU during the Omicron surge, the variant causes severe disease. Groups that are especially vulnerable are the elderly, people with chronic illness, and people who are immunocompromised.

"These groups are not spared during Omicron," says Hannah Imlay, MD, MS, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. "Because of Omicron's transmissibility, we are seeing more people dying in general."

COVID-19 vaccines for these groups may not work as well or may not work at all because they are unable to mount a robust immune response. People with these characteristics are urged to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to help keep them protected as much as possible. It's also important for the public to help protect them by getting a COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot.

Omicron is infecting more children.

COVID-19 hospitalizations for children under 18 have soared. On January 12, 2022, the CDC reported an 80% increase in new hospital admissions, which is the highest ever reported since the start of the pandemic.

And according to Andrew Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, we saw four times the number of children under age four get sick with COVID-19 caused by Omicron as compared to Delta. Unlike the Delta variant that causes more severe disease in relatively few children, Omicron has caused more children to be hospitalized overall.

The best way to protect children from getting infected is through COVID-19 vaccination. Children aged 6 months and older can get vaccinated. 

Unvaccinated individuals are at highest risk.

According to recent data from the Omicron surge in Utah, unvaccinated individuals are twice as likely to experience a symptomatic infection, six times more likely to be hospitalized, and 13 times more at risk of death than vaccinated individuals. Those who have previously been infected with COVID-19 can be re-infected by different virus variants and pass it onto others.

COVID-19 vaccines and a booster shot will protect you.

The CDC recommends everyone ages 6 months and older to get an updated Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, regardless if they received original COVID-19 vaccines. People aged 65 and older and people who are immunocompromised may get a second dose of an updated Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

"It will probably save your life or decrease the duration of symptoms," says Stephen Goldstein, PhD, a virologist and post-doctoral researcher at U of U Health. "Maybe you'll be sick for three days instead of seven, or seven days instead of two weeks."

Goldstein also says COVID-19 vaccines and a booster shot will reduce severity of illness if you get infected.

COVID-19 treatments are scarcely available.

There are treatments that can help symptomatic COVID-19 infection, but some have shown to be less effective against the Omicron variant. Out of the three available monoclonal antibody therapies in the U.S., only one works against Omicron, but it is in short supply. Pfizer's paxlovid pill is also available by prescription to people ages 12 and older, but supply of the pill is extremely limited. These treatments are not a substitute for COVID-19 vaccines, which are the best line of defense against the virus.