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Omicron and the holidays: What you need to know. 

  • SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 Image by rawpixel.com

Monitor staff
Published: 12/14/2021 1:22:24 PM
Modified: 12/14/2021 1:21:49 PM

While New Hampshire is battling a COVID surge brought on by the highly contagious Delta variant, a new “variant of concern” is causing heightened unease.

The new variant, dubbed Omicron after the Greek letter, was first detected in South Africa and has since been found in several U.S. states, including Massachusetts and New York. As of Friday, the variant has not been detected in New Hampshire. However, experts agree it is only a matter of time before it spreads through the state.

The Monitor sat down with Dr. Jose Mercado, the COVID-19 response leader at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, to discuss what scientists know about the new variant and how the news should inform holiday decisions. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What do we know about the Omicron variant right now? Is it more contagious? Does it cause more serious illness?

One of the concerns is that (Omicron) is going to be more transmissible. That seems to be the case with regards to South Africa. I think we do need some time to see if it would be the same here in the United States because you have to go back to that reproductive number. That is not only determined by the infectiousness or transmissibility of the variant but also your susceptible population. So if your population is highly vaccinated, highly immune to the virus, and is consistently masking, well then it will prevent the spread of infection.

With regards to the severity of the disease, I think we’ve seen reports that, although there was an increase in cases in South Africa, there wasn’t necessarily an increase in hospitalization. And we can be cautiously optimistic but we have to remember these data come later.

Q: Do we know anything about how well the current vaccines protect us against the new variant?

There is a worry that the Omicron variant has the ability to escape vaccine-induced immunity. I don’t think we know that right now, only time would tell as to whether we would need new vaccines to target the Omicron variant.

What experts do know right now is that if you’re eligible for the booster, making sure that you’re vaccinated and you have a high level of immunity will still protect you — particularly from severe disease — even with these new variants. One way to think about it is that you have more armies to defend yourself from catching the infection and or developing severe disease if you were to catch it.

Q: If this variant can evade vaccine immunity, is it easy for us to develop new vaccines, or is it going to be another year-long process?

As we do this more often, we tend to become more efficient. So the hope is that wouldn’t take us as long or longer. The hope is for us to have something available if we need to. We also need to make sure that the vaccines remain safe. So we need to continue to rely on and trust our scientists in doing their job before making any additional recommendations or changes.

Q: Does it seem likely that we’re going to need more booster shots in the future or does this round of boosters seem like the last in the series?

That’s a little bit harder to tell because it really depends on what the goal is and the evolution of the virus.

If our goal is to prevent hospitalizations, and we’ll see a decline (of hospitalizations) in the future, then maybe we don’t. But I think as long as we’re continuing to see significant amounts of severe disease and hospitalization, then I think it makes sense for us to continue to kind of step up our game and make sure we mitigate those types of situations.

Q: Given everything we’ve talked about, how should Granite Staters take this information to make decisions about gathering for the holidays?

The good thing is the answers are not necessarily any different. We have layers of protection. If you’re not vaccinated, then get the vaccine. If you’re vaccinated and eligible for the booster, boosting would also help.

I think it would help when you’re planning to gather if all individuals could be vaccinated. And on top of that, I would still encourage individuals to wear their masks and when they’re not wearing their masks, practice physical distancing. So, again, these are additive layers of protection. I think that’s one thing that we tend to forget. Some may have kind of decided “oh, since I’m vaccinated, I don’t need to wear a mask,” which is not necessarily true, particularly now that we’re talking about more transmissible variants.

I think the other thing to consider is that if you have unvaccinated members of your family or those who have weak immune systems, those are particularly susceptible individuals. So it might be best for them to be innovative and consider virtual options or consider postponing because we’re in respiratory season. We’re seeing a spike right now and it might be best to wait for when we have a lower amount of virus circulating in our communities.

Q: How do we know when it’s safe to gather again for those individuals? What metrics do you use to make that determination?

I would refer to the CDC’s guidance and the state dashboard. So there are different levels of transmission that correspond with different levels of guidance. Right now we are at a high level of community transmission.

Q: So what about testing? Do you recommend either doing a rapid antigen or PCR test before people gather for the holidays?

I think although it might be helpful, it is important to remember that the antigen tests in particular are not valid for asymptomatic individuals. So I would avoid overreliance on a negative test. I think what is important is that individuals continue to consistently observe those mitigation strategies that we previously had discussed. And then in addition to that, after the holiday, they should continue to monitor for symptoms and maybe limit exposures so that you’re not potentially spreading infection.


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