By Gina DiPietro, Novant Health Healthy Headlines
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As omicron overtakes delta as the dominant COVID variant, the number of infections – and people seeking testing – have risen sharply.
Omicron accounts for an estimated 60% of U.S. COVID cases, and nearly 80% of infections in North and South Carolina, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And unvaccinated individuals are most prone to severe illness, said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief, safety, quality and epidemiology officer.
“I think every human on the planet, short of someone who’s a castaway on a desert island, will get exposed to the virus. And while we don’t see omicron necessarily targeting one age group over another, we certainly do see it preferentially affecting those who are unvaccinated and unboosted,” Priest said.
Omicron is 2 to 3 times more contagious than delta, he said, and up to 6 times more contagious than original strains of COVID, “which explains the incredibly quick movement of this variant.”
Another concern among scientists is that most treatments for COVID are not effective against omicron. Sotrovimab – administered via IV infusion, which delivers the medication directly into the bloodstream – is the only monoclonal antibody treatment holding up, Priest said, and supply is “extremely limited.”
Newer treatments such as Paxlovid and molnupiravir, the anti-viral pills approved for people with mild to moderate symptoms, are effective in keeping COVID patients out of the hospital but their supply is also “incredibly low.”
“We’re really excited about these products, and they’ll be game changers once we have access to them, but there’s so little available right now. We need people to know that if they’re unvaccinated or at high-risk for complications from COVID, there will be limited therapies to help them if they get sick,” Priest said.
The bottom line: Don’t wait to get vaccinated or receive a booster. Data has shown that three doses of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccine gives a “significant boost in protection against omicron. It’s not 100% but like I’ve said, nothing in medicine is,” he added.
What makes omicron different?
In addition to being more contagious than earlier variants, omicron may also have a shorter incubation period.
“The incubation period could be as short as three days, making people contagious more quickly after they get it. That also leaves a smaller window for someone to discover they have it and get tested,” Priest said.
When it comes to the notion that omicron results in less severe illness, he added, “I think for the volume of cases we have, it seems to be a little less serious in general. But when people who are vulnerable (the elderly, immunocompromised) get infected, they’re likely to have complications.”
Omicron symptoms most commonly present as upper respiratory infections, sore throat, fever, cough and congestion.
“I don’t personally see as much of the loss of taste and smell we saw earlier in the pandemic. So, these variants all have a different predilection for different parts of human anatomy and that can make their presentation a bit different. If you have symptoms of fever, sore throat, headache, congestion and cough right now, there’s a pretty good chance you have COVID given the numbers we’re seeing,” Priest said.