Skip to main content

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

Jan 25, 2022

Información en español

The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 has quickly spread and infected people in a way we have never seen before in the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is still much to be learned about the newest variant, there is nothing "mild" about this form of the virus. COVID-19 vaccines, booster shots, face masks, and other prevention measures are more critical than ever to help stop transmission of the virus.

Omicron is very transmissible.

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

How rapidly COVID-19 spreads can depend on a number of factors such as low vaccination rates, high-density housing, and minimal mask use in communities. The level of transmission is expected to eventually decline as more people get infected, but at this time there is not enough data to determine a timeline.

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. This data is reflected in the soaring number of positive case numbers of COVID-19 in the U.S.

While the Delta variant is also extremely contagious and is 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 makes it more difficult for antibodies to recognize it and latch on to the spike protein.

Omicron can cause severe disease.

While less people are being admitted to the ICU during the Omicron surge, the variant is still causing 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 are soaring. 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. According to Andrew Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, we are seeing 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 is causing more children to be hospitalized overall.

The best way to protect children from getting infected is through COVID-19 vaccination. Children aged five and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Children under age 12 are not yet eligible for a booster shot, but data shows two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine helps protect against severe illness and hospitalization from the virus.

Omicron is a serious threat to health care systems.

Due to how transmissible and contagious Omicron is, a surge in new COVID-19 infections is causing sick patients to flood emergency departments, which are becoming overwhelmed. This is causing an added strain on health care systems across the country that already have reduced staffing due to people leaving the field. In addition, many staff are becoming sick themselves or taking care of family members who are sick. While Omicron may cause less severe disease, it is impacting more people at once, which is causing more people to seek medical care during a time when health systems are already under stress.

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 booster shots will protect you.

While two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are not as effective at preventing infection by Omicron, they are still effective at helping prevent hospitalization and death from the virus. The booster will help protect you even more.

"It will probably save your life or decrease the duration of symptoms," said Stephen Goldstein, PhD, 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 said 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.