This afternoon the state Department of Health announced it has positively identified a case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in Pierce County, a man in his 20's. We knew it was inevitable, and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has been preparing, but this is a reminder that we need to protect ourselves and others.
What we know about Omicron
In short, not a lot. Genetic mapping shows that it’s quite different than each of the previous variants. We don’t know what each of the 50 identified mutations does. Still, it’s believed some changes in the protein spike improve its ability to infect our cells.
Initial data suggests that it may spread faster than Delta, which is already very contagious. This may be in part because of increased reinfections, meaning it’s better at evading natural immunity. In previous variants, natural immunity only provided about half of the protection of the vaccines.
What we don’t know
There hasn’t been enough time or data since the discovery of Omicron to determine if it’s more virulent or dangerous. Some initial pre-prints offered hope that wouldn’t be the case, but that may also be due to the first patients’ relative age, which skewed younger. It will take time to determine the severity of the disease caused by Omicron, so in the meantime, it’s safest to assume that hospitalization and mortality rates are similar to Delta until proven otherwise.
Whether Delta remains most prevalent or Omicron takes over, unvaccinated people are nearly certain to catch this disease at some point. Vaccination provides the best protection against infection. You are 5x less likely to get infected while fully vaccinated, 10x less likely to be hospitalized, and 10x less likely to die.
Vaccination also helps reduce risk to others around you, especially people who have immune deficiencies or can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.
Our obligation to each other
Nearly all of us have received the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Most have some conception of what the first two are like, but few are familiar with Rubella, and that’s for a good reason. Most people who catch it never know. In some cases, adults might experience mild flu-like symptoms and rashing. Children may experience a greater degree of discomfort but still nothing too scary.
However, Rubella can cause severe complications for pregnant women, like congenital disorders and miscarriage. We’ve protected expecting mothers and babies from this disease for decades by forming a protective shield around them through the MMR vaccine. The result: we’ve nearly eradicated the threat from the US.
Somewhere along the line, we lost track of our collective responsibility to vulnerable people around us. We have a moral obligation to protect each other, even if we’ll receive relatively little benefit ourselves. Omicron is reminding us of that duty.
Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Wear a mask when close to others.