Q&A: What the Omicron variant might mean for Charlotte and your holiday plans

Q&A: What the Omicron variant might mean for Charlotte and your holiday plans
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While Americans feasted on turkeys and put up our Christmas trees, scientists halfway across the world in South Africa detected a new COVID variant: Omicron.

With the holiday season in full swing and Mecklenburg County on the verge of lifting its indoor mask mandate, health and safety are top of mind.

Mecklenburg County’s Public Health Department says it hasn’t received any reports of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant among county residents.

  • “We continue to encourage everyone who traveled over the holiday to get tested, as well as strongly encourage everyone age five and older to get vaccinated and get a booster dose when eligible,” the county’s statement to Axios read.
  • Of note: The first North American cases of the variant were detected in Canada over the weekend, per NBC News.

Why it matters: As cases of the new variant continue to pop up around the world, people are becoming increasingly concerned about travel, the vaccine and boosters. But many local officials are sticking with their same advice: get vaccinated, be cautious

Driving the news: The B.1.1.529 variant, aka Omicron, was first reported to the World Health Organization on Wednesday, Nov. 24, by South African authorities. According to the WHO, South Africa started seeing a new spike in cases, and that’s what led to the discovery of the new variant.

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  • On Monday, Nov. 29, the WHO released a new risk assessment, saying the new variant has a “very high” risk globally because it may be more transmissible than other strains of the virus.

Yes, but: The National Institute of Health director Francis Collins says there’s “no reason to panic” yet, reports Axios’ Yacob Reyes. Collins says they need more data.

What they’re saying: Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Biden have the same message: Get vaccinated. And, they’re doubling down on boosters.

    A little closer to home, Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, shared his expertise with us on the Omicron variant. We’ve edited his responses for clarity and brevity.

    Why should I bother getting vaccinated if we keep getting new variants?

    It’s very unlikely that this new variant — even if it has some way to evade parts of our immune responses — that there will be a complete evasion. When Delta came along we had more breakthrough infections from people who had been vaccinated, particularly the people who had been vaccinated early on and I think it’ll be the same with this variant. My prediction would be that it will seriously prevent hospitalizations and serious disease and if you’ve been boosted, it’ll give you even more protection.

    I’m fully vaccinated and I have my booster. Should I worry about this new variant?

    I don’t think anyone should really be worried about the variant. If you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, I would not change what we’re doing, because masks still work, (so does) avoiding large crowds and groups of people. If you are unvaccinated though, now is the time to get it. Because by the time all of this, and COVID, is over, either through Delta variant, Omicron variant, or whatever variant might come down the pipe, one way or another we’re all going to get immune to COVID. And you can either do it through vaccination and boosting or you’re going to get the disease. If you get the disease, in an unvaccinated way, there’s between a one and four percent chance of dying. The vaccine is clearly the way to go.

    What are the symptoms?

    That’s one of the unanswered questions. It does seem to be a bit more contagious. How much more contagious than Delta, we have to sort that out. But the increase in the number of cases in certain provinces in South Africa, including in breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, is concerning. The people hospitalized with Omicron in South Africa so far seem to be unvaccinated people, but (it’s) still very early. … As far as what symptoms people will have, it’ll still be fever, body aches, headaches, cough, and in more severe cases pneumonia, and possibly a spread of the infection to other organ systems but I think that’s going to be a concern for the unvaccinated people.

    Is there going to be a winter surge?

    The variant adds a little bit of complexity to the prediction models. I think for us here in the Southeast, the respiratory virus season is here already and will continue into March as it does every year. Those respiratory viruses that will be circulating will include the Delta Variant and the flu.

    Can I visit my family safely this holiday season?

    My recommendations haven’t changed a lot. One, get vaccinated. Two, get boosted before you travel and visit your loved ones. Three, use some of those at-home tests that are available right now. So right before you go, test yourself and know you’re not exposing grandma. And lastly, if you have any concerns, particularly while you’re indoors, wear a mask.

    What about the mask mandate?

    I think that the places you see more unmasked people are going to be the places where the case numbers go up faster. I’m not predicting any surge in COVID like we saw last year. But if you have a community that remains largely masked and is following guidelines, you’re going to have less trouble.

    Is this going to impact the demand for boosters and shots for kids?

    I hope so. I hope it does. It’s a safe vaccine for kids. It works for kids, and we need to protect our children. And yes, they should be vaccinated. I feel strongly about that.

    Go deeper: Axios put together this Coronavirus Variant Tracker. On it, you can track each detected variant as it spreads in every state, and compare how they differ from each other.

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