The 2021 holiday season saw a continued surge of the Omicron COVID-19 variant around the United States. The overall number of positive cases for the virus has increased exponentially during the past month, and breakout cases among fully vaccinated individuals are becoming more common.
Omicron and the healthcare system's response to it have created numerous questions for business and community leaders and the general public. To shed some light on the variant and its spread, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation invited Dr. Katelyn Jetelina of “Your Local Epidemiologist” for another “Ask Me Anything” session to answer pressing questions about Omicron.
Here are some key insights from Dr. Jetelina about Omicron in early 2022, including the latest statistics, the importance of antigen tests, and what remains unclear about the variant.
The State of Omicron in Early 2022
As of mid-January 2022, the seven-day average of new COVID positive cases in the U.S. has been about 800,000 each day, far higher than any other point in the pandemic. Dr. Jetelina said the number of cases is actually an underestimate because of the lack of testing capacity in many states. While some areas like New York and Massachusetts appear to have peaked, other regions in the country have not.
“We expect to peak in our cases in about two weeks, probably the beginning of February,” said Dr. Jetelina.
However, she said, while cases are exponentially or even vertically increasing, hospitalizations are not increasing at the same rate.
“Our vaccines are working really well and keeping people out of the hospitals, [and] we have more and more evidence showing that, intrinsically, Omicron is less severe than Delta,” Dr. Jetelina added.
Cloth Masks Are No Longer Enough for Omicron
Because Omicron is so much more transmissible than any previous strain of COVID-19, Dr. Jetelina recommends that people update their cloth masks to N95 or KN95 masks. Cloth masks offer less protection and don't prevent transmission as well as N95 masks, she explained.
“Omicron is incredibly transmissible,” said Dr. Jetelina. “I've seen estimates putting [its contagiousness] near measles — it is very easy to get infected. If you're exposed to this virus, we know that N95s work really well. They block 95% of particles.”
At-Home Antigen Tests Are the Best Line of Defense
Dr. Jetelina advocated for everyone to have at-home antigen tests, as they are the most underutilized tool in this pandemic. Households should try to keep them in stock to help prevent the spread, she said. If someone has been exposed and is feeling symptomatic, they should immediately isolate then wait for the second or third day of their symptoms to test.
“We should all have them in our closets and ready to take,” said Dr. Jetelina.
However, because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, at-home test kits have been hard to come by and should therefore be used judiciously.
“I would not be testing if you are … asymptomatic and you're not going to be visiting a vulnerable population,” Dr. Jetelina said. “Please keep these antigen tests for those that really need them.”
Immunity from Omicron Is Unclear
Omicron has spread so rapidly, even among the vaccinated, that many people are wondering how long they will be immune against Omicron and COVID-19 in general. Unfortunately, this question is still largely unanswerable at this point, since the variant is still relatively new.
“We have two hypotheses,” said Dr. Jetelina. “One is that it's going to last as long as previous variants, which was about 16 months. The other hypothesis [is] that because this isn't a higher viral load and because our response isn't as intense with Omicron, that maybe immunity doesn't last as long as Delta.”
“I'm pretty confident that the immunity will last for about 90 days, but what happens after that is certainly up for debate,” she added.
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