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Omicron is a new variant of the COVID-19 virus. On November 26th, 2021 the World Health Organization (WHO) designated this new variant as a Variant of Concern (VOC). Due to quick action from scientists, the world was alerted very quickly about the Omicron variant. However, this also means that we don’t yet know a lot about Omicron. What we know mostly comes from the WHO and from recent cases in other countries. This news is concerning, but at the time of this writing, there is no information that is cause for panic.

What we know today

Omicron may cause more illness, but we don’t know for sure yet

Due to the similarities between Omicron and variants like Delta, scientists are concerned about the potential of the Omicron variant to spread more easily, cause more severe disease, or more easily infect people with prior immunity (either from vaccination or prior infection). However, there is not enough evidence to say to what extent any of these are true.

It is important to get tested

Wisconsin has systems in place to find the Omicron variant when someone who has it tests positive. It’s important for anyone—including children—who has symptoms or is exposed to get tested. The community test site at South Madison can now test children as young as 12 months old.

Everyone should get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible

The best protection against COVID, including Omicron, is for people ages 5 and older to be vaccinated. If you are already vaccinated, you should get a booster dose. Information on where to get vaccinated and booster eligibility can be found here. Think of vaccines like a coat you wear on a cold day. Even if your coat isn’t quite warm enough, you’re still better wearing it than nothing at all. Protection from hospitalization or death due to COVID is easier to achieve than protection against infection, so vaccines can still provide some protection even if they aren’t as effective against Omicron.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is the Omicron variant different?

While there are many variants of the COVID-19 virus, only those that show evidence of 1) easier spread from person to person, 2) more severe disease, or 3) decreased effectiveness of vaccines or treatments receive the “Variant of Concern” designation from the World Health Organization. In the case of the Omicron variant, scientists are concerned about the potential to meet one or more of these criteria due to the high number and type of mutations in the spike protein. The spike protein is the “key” that our immune system uses to find and destroy COVID in our bodies.

Does Omicron spread more easily?

We don’t know yet. According to the WHO, “It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.”

Does Omicron lead to more severe disease?

We don’t know yet. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms or disease severity associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants. More time is needed to fully understand the impact of Omicron on symptoms and disease severity.

Are vaccines effective against Omicron?

We don’t know yet. It will take time before scientists know how effective vaccines are against Omicron. However, vaccine effectiveness is not a yes or no question, but on a spectrum. Vaccines can still provide protection even if they aren’t as good at preventing illness. We saw this with the Delta variant, where illness after vaccination sometimes happens, but hospitalization and death remain rare. It is very likely that vaccines will provide at least some protection against the Omicron variant.

Getting vaccinated is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself against Omicron, Delta, and all other COVID variants. If you are already vaccinated, get a booster as soon as possible.

If I already had COVID, am I protected against Omicron?

We don’t know yet. There will be more information in the coming days and weeks. If you are not already, getting vaccinated or getting a booster dose will provide a better defense against Omicron and all COVID variants.

Do current tests still detect COVID if it’s the Omicron variant?

The current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test used to confirm a COVID-19 infection continues to detect infection with the Omicron variant. This is the test most often done at clinics and pharmacies, including our South Madison Office. Studies are ongoing to determine whether Omicron affects other types of tests, including rapid antigen tests.

What is Dane County doing to find Omicron?

Our partners at the University of Wisconsin (UW) and the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene look at the genetic code in COVID-19 test samples to figure out what kinds of variants are circulating. The UW team is currently increasing the number of genetic sequences they look at until there is a better handle on Omicron. They are also paying special attention to samples from returning international travelers. Because of all this work, we will find out quickly when Omicron reaches Dane County.

Information on the Omicron variant is likely to be updated in the coming weeks. For reliable information, you can check the Centers for Disease Control page on variants (likely to soon be updated with information on the Omicron variant), or the WHO page on variants.

This content is free for use with credit to the City of Madison - Public Health Madison & Dane County and a link back to the original post.