On Saturday, the first case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant was discovered in Massachusetts.
According to a Saturday press release from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the individual is a fully vaccinated female in her twenties from Middlesex County who travelled out-of-state. She only had a minor illness and did not need to be hospitalised.
Many aspects of Omicron remain unknown as scientists continue to analyse and compare it to the Delta variant.
According to Paul Beninger, associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, there are about 50 Omicron mutations that raise three types of concerns.
“One concern is the rate at which it can replicate, enter cells, replicate, and then break out of cells,” Beninger explained. “That’s what the Delta did.” It was faster than all the other variants, so it essentially took over.” Tufts University associate professor of public health and community medicine Paul Beninger stated.
The second concern, he says, is the severity of the disease that can result from the variant. However, the severity of Omicron is unknown at this time, including whether Omicron will cause different symptoms than earlier variants.
“In theory, it may be at risk of causing more serious disease,” he says, “but there’s no real evidence of that yet.”
Laura Corlin, an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, agreed with Beninger that little is known about the transmissibility or severity of the Omicron variant.
“There isn’t much evidence yet,” she said. “The researchers, public health officials, and people in South Africa and other places have been really good at surveillance, and they’ve gotten as much data as they possibly can as quickly as they can.”
The third point of concern, according to Beninger, is the efficacy of current vaccines against Omicron.
“We really don’t have any data on how it’s affected by the vaccines that are available,” he said. “So we’re still in the discovery phase, just starting to figure out what the potential of this particular variant is.”
Even though there are many unknowns about the Omicron variant, Beninger recommends that people get vaccinated as soon as possible. People should continue to get boosters to protect themselves, he says.
“Any booster we give will enhance the person’s natural immune system and help the person to be even more protected than before,” he explained.
The effectiveness of vaccines against the new variant has yet to be determined, according to Corlin, but vaccination is likely to be beneficial.
“If people are eligible for boosters but have not yet received their booster shot, they should get it as soon as possible,” Corlin wrote in an email. “It is acceptable to mix and match vaccine types.”
According to Jarone Lee, medical director of the Blake 12 Intensive Care Unit and an emergency physician at Mass General Hospital, current vaccines are still effective in protecting people.
“We don’t know a lot about this variant, but it’s still the same virus,” he said. “Our vaccines have previously worked very well against all variants of COVID, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t protect you.”
Precautions for COVID-19 remain in effect for the new variant.
To stop the spread of the variant, the Boston Public Health Commission urges residents to continue wearing masks indoors, practise social distancing, monitor for symptoms, and get tested for COVID-19 if experiencing symptoms, wrote Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the BPHC, adding that the Commission is “doubling-down” on its recommendation that people get the vaccine and booster shot.
“Our number one priority is to keep the people of Boston safe and healthy, as well as to keep our schools and businesses open,” she wrote. “That necessitates vaccinating as many people as possible.”
Pfizer, Moderna, and other vaccine manufacturers are most likely working on new vaccines, but the public should get booster shots as soon as possible in the hope that it will help with the Omicron variant, according to Philip Landrigan, Doctor and Global Public Health programme director at Boston College.
Landrigan went on to say that people should protect themselves in the same way they did last year by “masking, handwashing, social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings.”
Cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in 18 states across the country. While the Omicron variant has received the most attention, the Delta variant remains the most common strain in the United States, according to the CDC.
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