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What you should know about the omicron variant

<p>PPE equipment supplied by Mercer Student Health Center.</p>

PPE equipment supplied by Mercer Student Health Center.

As COVID-19 cases have continued to rise, a new strain of the pandemic has been observed worldwide. The omicron variant has rocked the world as a more contagious yet less deadly strain of coronavirus. 

Like most information about the virus that causes COVID-19, the origins of the new variant have not been specifically established. The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, although it does not mean that it originated there. Omicron, like all variants, has grown as an aberration of the original SARS-CoV-2.

Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, the medical director for infectious diseases at Northeast Georgia Health System, has suggested the importance of safety protocols to combat this new strain of COVID-19. 

“It's all about wearing the mask properly, you know, you have to wear a mask that is layered,” Mannepalli said. “Make sure it is covering the nose and mouth properly and continue social distancing and basic hand hygiene.” 

Dr. Mannepalli also says vaccination is the most important tool healthcare professionals have to save lives during the pandemic. 

“I think of each vaccine administered as a lifesaver,” Mannepalli said. “That is why we are trying to spread the news through social media and local media channels to increase vaccination. Time is of the essence to stop the spread of COVID.”

Communications director of Gwinnett, Newton & Rockdale County Health Departments Chad Wasdin agrees with Dr. Mannepalli that hand washing and Vaccination remain the best forms of protection against severe disease, complications, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19. 

“At this time, all information points to current vaccines and boosters as an effective means of protection against COVID,” Wasdin said. “We recommend everyone 5 and older complete the primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Currently, the CDC recommends that anyone over 18 receive a booster if they have completed their primary series (at least two months after their initial Johnson & Johnson vaccine or six months after their two shots of Pfizer or Moderna). There is currently no vaccine or booster specific to a variant.

Wasdin also described the omicron variant as not fully understood having only been present for such a short time. According to CDC, due to the small number of cases, the current severity of illness and death associated with this variant is unclear.

“We don't yet know what the impact of this variant could be among our population,” Wasdin said. “The CDC presumes this variant will spread more easily than the original strain but to what degree in comparison to Delta is also unknown right now. That's why it remains important to continue working to get as many people vaccinated as possible -- to give the virus less opportunity to spread in our communities.”

Hokanson also encourages all eligible individuals to get a booster of the COVID-19 vaccine and if they are not vaccinated, that they get vaccinated as soon as possible. Hokanson, however, points out that the omicron strain is not fully covered by the booster or currently available vaccines.

“It is important to note that the currently available vaccines and boosters are not specifically formulated against this new variant,” Hokanson said. “While vaccines are expected to reduce the likelihood of severe outcomes, there is not yet enough data to determine how protected vaccinated people are against hospitalization and death related to omicron.”

After coming back from the holidays, it is important to also be mindful of your health and the health of those around you. The more unvaccinated people that gather, the higher the risk of spread in a group. 

All of these sources agree that it is important to maintain social distancing by staying home if you feel sick to limit the spread and getting tested to rule out COVID-19.

Mannepalli, Wasdin and Hokanson also agree to wear a mask in public places where you don't know the vaccination status of those around you and be sure to celebrate the holidays safely.

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