(WHTM) — With COVID-19 cases surging and hospitalizations up once again as the new omicron variant spreads, many are tired of the pandemic that is now stretching into a third calendar year. Pennsylvania health experts say that while the omicron variant may cause more mild infections generally, it is not yet time to let down your guard.
Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant present in the U.S. “Omicron has surprised everyone by the pure magnitude of this wave that’s happened around the world. It’s so much higher and so much more intense than the wave that we had last winter,” said Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.
“Omicron is more contagious than the previously dominant delta strain of COVID-19,” said Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC, but it is also less virulent, meaning it generally causes more mild disease, especially among those who have been vaccinated and boosted.
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Goldman noted that hospitalizations are still predominantly occurring among unvaccinated individuals, although the majority of Pennsylvanians are vaccinated. In the UPMC Central Pennsylvania system on Jan. 20, Goldman said, there were 266 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and 22 of them were vaccinated while 244 of them were not.
Goldman also said that among vaccinated individuals, those who end up with severe cases tend to be older or immunocompromised. “To put that in perspective, an 80-plus-year-old who is vaccinated has a lower risk of death than a 50-to-65-year-old who is unvaccinated,” Goldman said.
While the protection the initial doses of the vaccine offers against COVID wanes over time, Kontra said the booster shot adds extra protection against hospitalization, death, and even catching the disease in the first place. While the breakthrough rate for fully vaccinated but not boosted individuals is about 50%, the booster lowers the breakthrough rate to 10% or less, Kontra said.
For those with more mild cases of the omicron COVID strain, loss of taste and smell appear to be less common symptoms than with previous variants. More common symptoms include a runny nose, a sore throat, and headaches.
So does omicron’s decreased virulence mean people no longer need to be concerned about catching COVID? Goldman and Kontra said no, not really.
For one thing, Kontra said, the recent significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases means that even if a smaller percentage of people who catch omicron end up in the hospital, healthcare facilities are seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients since there are simply more people contracting the virus.
For example, “If you have half as many people being hospitalized but four times as many people with the disease, you still have more hospitalizations,” Goldman said.
“While this is a mild infection for each individual, for the health system and for the country as a whole it’s a very serious infection, and so we should do everything we can to prevent it,” Kontra said. (One may harken back to the concept of flattening the curve from the start of the pandemic.)
Additionally, people who catch omicron or other COVID-19 variants can still spread the virus to others, and Goldman noted that while you personally may not be at high risk for severe disease, you might give it to someone else, like an older parent or immunocompromised individual, whose risk of serious infection is greater.
Kontra says masking, social distancing, washing your hands, and getting vaccinated are all still important at this stage of the pandemic.
Health experts predict that COVID-19 may be working towards its endemic stage in which the virus is consistently present but doesn’t cause the high levels of hospitalizations and deaths that COVID has so far. The flu is one example of an endemic disease. Omicron may offer a hint at the direction in which the coronavirus is shifting.
“What’s best for the virus is to be highly contagious and not harm the host. That’s the way it can continue to circulate, and I think that’s the trajectory of the evolution of the COVID-19 virus,” Kontra described.
“I do agree, I think COVID’s going to become an endemic disease,” said Goldman. “The way it truly becomes just like the flu, unfortunately, is everybody gets vaccinated or infected. It is so contagious that I think everyone who is not currently vaccinated probably in the next three to six months is going to get COVID.”