The virus that causes COVID-19 continues to change. Now, the Omicron variant is here, competing for attention with Delta.
The Omicron variant, which seems to have originated in South Africa, was first detected in a patient in New Jersey in early December 2021 and poses a potential new threat, especially among those who remain unvaccinated and are therefore at higher risk of serious infection.
New COVID-19 cases are again increasing in New Jersey – most all of them due to the Delta variant – and scientists are carefully watching for the emergence of Omicron and the risks it presents to public health. Here’s what you need to know right now to protect yourself, your family and your community:
- Omicron may spread more easily. Omicron seems to be more transmissible from person to person than Delta. According to a technical brief from the World Health Organization, “The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high.” Within a week after its discovery in late November, South Africa saw its number of COVID-19 cases with the Omicron strain double.
- Little evidence so far that illness from Omicron is more severe. Based on early data, symptoms from the Omicron variant are consistent with – and not more severe than – other strains of COVID-19. In South Africa, patients have reported mild symptoms and some have not experienced loss of taste and smell, which is a frequent symptom from other strains of COVID-19.
- Vaccines are still the best bet to protect yourself. Scientists are investigating the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant. Until more is known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that everyone age 5 and older should get vaccinated and recommends boosters for everyone 18 years and older, and boosters are showing to be effective against Omicron. People who have been vaccinated generally have more mild illness and are better able to avoid hospitalization.
- Delta is still the biggest concern. While Omicron is getting lots of attention, Delta is still responsible for the current increase in cases. As of December 5, new cases are being reported daily in New Jersey at twice the rate they were a month earlier. States like New Hampshire and Vermont – which experience the effects of cold weather earlier – have reported some of the highest new case rates even though their vaccination rates are similar to New Jersey’s (68%).
- Protection and prevention are more important than ever. In addition to COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, health officials recommend general prevention strategies to help stay safe from exposure to the new variant. These steps include:Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth when indoors in places where people gather – restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, and theaters for example. Masks are still required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation
- Avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces
- Maintaining social distance, especially if you have underlying health issues that put you at higher risk of serious illness or have not been vaccinated
- Regular hand-washing with soap and water or use of hand sanitizer
- Monitoring your temperature for fever