By Gina DiPietro, Novant Health Healthy Headlines
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Interest in the latest COVID variant piqued this week after news that omicron had made its way to California, the first confirmed case in the U.S. As the world waits to learn more about how severe the threat might be, the message from infectious disease experts is clear – vaccination is the best to way protect yourself.
“No one in the scientific community is surprised when new variants emerge. It’s how viruses work. But the longer it takes for people to get their COVID vaccines or boosters, the more opportunity we give the virus to mutate and change,” said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief, safety, quality and epidemiology officer.
Priest cautioned against giving too much weight to anecdotal evidence about how dangerous the new variant might be. It could be weeks, he said, before scientists will know the level of threat we face.
While it’s not yet known how effective the vaccines will be against omicron, Priest noted current vaccines remain “incredibly effective” in preventing hospitalization and death.
That’s true both nationally and around the world. Nations with high vaccination rates like Ireland and Portugal have lower death rates, while countries with fewer people vaccinated such as Romania and Bulgaria have the highest death rates.
There’s a lot to be learned about omicron, first identified in South Africa, but Priest shared what to consider now.
Should I be worried about omicron?
The omicron variant has “raised some alarm bells” because of the number of mutations it has – particularly related to its spike protein. A spike protein is the part of the virus that allows it to interact with human cells, and what the vaccines train the body to recognize and attack.
“When changes are noted in the spike protein of a new variant, it raises concerns among physicians and scientists. We need to understand if these mutations impact how the virus behaves, because it could affect our immune system’s ability to fight it,” Priest said.
COVID symptoms like fever, chills, loss of smell or taste and shortness of breath are expected to be similar with omicron. But experts will know more in the coming weeks.
“Understanding how the variant is behaving will help inform what, if any, adjustments should be made to our vaccine strategy,” he added.
Will manufacturers develop new COVID vaccines?
This depends on what’s discovered about how the spike protein behaves with omicron. The manufacturers of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna said they’re prepared to reformulate their mRNA vaccines, if necessary.
Here’s why: Scientists can find the genetic code that targets a very specific spike protein. Then, design their vaccine to make a spike protein that looks like that. Think of it as an instruction manual that allows your immune system to fight off a virus.
“Pfizer said it would take 100 days to get an updated vaccine developed. This speaks to the way mRNA technology works and how quickly adjustments can be made compared to traditional vaccine technologies. So, I think they’re smart to be prepared,” Priest said.
Should I wait to get vaccinated until then?
No. Getting any approved COVID vaccine now is better than waiting. That goes for your first vaccination or a booster dose, which is now recommended to anyone 18 and older.
“Don’t wait until it’s too late and you’re in the ICU. Yesterday, every person on a ventilator at Novant Health was unvaccinated – even though the delta variant is responsible for 99% of COVID cases in the U.S. It shows that having a vigorous immune response to earlier strains can protect against newer ones,” Priest said.
Booster-eligible adults should consider getting the extra shot six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It’s most strongly recommended for people 65 and older and anyone who is “profoundly immunosuppressed,” he added.
Can I travel?
It’s safest to travel if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you’re masking in public and when you’re going somewhere with a group of people who are doing the same thing.
“As far as international travel, that’s been halted in a lot of places – at least temporarily until we get a better sense of what’s happening,” Priest said.
What else should I do to protect myself – and my family – over the holidays?
If you have a child who is five or older, they are eligible for a COVID vaccine. Make sure they get it, doctors say. Vaccination protects the child, siblings who are too young to get one and our most vulnerable family members.
Other common-sense recommendations include:
– Wash your hands often.
– Sanitize surfaces that many people touch.
– Social distance and avoided crowds, when possible.
– Always mask if you’re in public, especially in indoor places like an airplane, bus or grocery store.
– Get your flu shot if you haven’t already. It can be given at the same time as a COVID vaccine.