What Are the Symptoms of the Omicron COVID-19 Variant?
The symptoms of the Omicron COVID-19 variant are similar to other COVID-19 variants: fever, cough, shortness of breath, and muscle aches; however, there are fewer reports of significant loss of taste and smell with the Omicron variant.
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What Is The Omicron Variant?
The Omicron COVID-19 variant contains about 50 mutations, 30 of which are on the spike protein the coronavirus uses to attach to human cells. These mutations make the virus more contagious, but it is too early to tell if this is the case with Omicron. As of December 5th, the Omicron variant has been detected in 17 states. The map below depicts which states have already detected cases of the Omicron variant.
The Omicron Variant in the U.S.
Scientists are racing to study the spread of the Omicron variant after an analysis of cases in South Africa indicated that it may be at least three times more likely to cause reinfection than previous variants. Researchers worry the Omicron variant may have the ability to evade immunity from prior infection, which is why it is spreading so fast.
Symptoms of the Omicron COVID-19 Variant
Cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant have been generally mild with similar symptoms to other variants. The main difference is people who are infected are not losing their sense of taste and smell. One doctor in South Africa referred to Omicron's symptoms as “unusual but mild” when young people showed up to her office with intense fatigue.
Below we compare some of the common symptoms of the omicron and delta COVID-19 variants. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, even mild, you should see a health care provider and get a COVID-19 diagnostic test.
Omicron vs. Delta Variant Symptoms
|Fatigue||Elevated pulse rates|
|Sore throat||Low oxygen levels|
|Body aches||Loss of smell and taste|
|Shortness of breath||Shortness of breath|
COVID-19 Vaccines and Omicron
Scientists remain optimistic that the vaccines will effectively prevent life-threatening illness, hospitalization, and death from the Omicron variant. Vaccines and booster shots produce robust immune responses and antibodies that work against multiple parts of the spike protein.
It is unclear whether the Omicron variant can evade immunity from vaccination or previous infection, but vaccine-makers are studying how the vaccines will hold up. In the meantime, several nations have imposed travel bans hoping to contain the virus and slow the spread of COVID-19.
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Omicron Disease Severity
The early evidence shows signs that symptoms from Omicron may not be more severe than previous variants. Cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant among the unvaccinated have been mild. It is too early to tell how older and immunocompromised people will respond to the new variant, and it is not clear if the variant will cause more severe cases of COVID-19 than other variants.
COVID-19 Variants of Concern
Even though the delta variant still comprises most COVID-19 cases worldwide, Omicron has recently been classified as a Variant of Concern (VOC). RNA viruses like the coronavirus can mutate when they replicate, making them more infectious and threatening public health measures.
Variant of Concern (VOC): A variant with evidence of increased transmissibility, increased disease severity, and reduced effectiveness of treatments, vaccines, or diagnostics.
VOCs are closely monitored and require public health response.
Variant of Interest (VOI): A variant with specific genetic markers thought to be associated with reduced efficacy of treatments, potential diagnostic impact, or predicted increase in transmissibility or disease severity. A VOI might require enhanced sequence surveillance or epidemiological investigations.
Current Variants of Concern
|Omicron||B.1.1.529||Identified in southern Africa in Nov. 2021.|
Emerged in India in late 2020 and spread around the world.
Delta carries the L452R spike mutation, among others.
|Gamma||P.1||Emerged in Brazil in late 2020.|
|Beta||B.1.351||Emerged in South Africa in early 2020.|
|Alpha||B.1.1.7||Emerged in Britain in late 2020.|
Current Variants of Interest
|Mu||B.1.621||Emerged in Colombia in early 2021.|
|Lambda||C.37||Emerged in Peru in late 2020.|
Omicron COVID-19 Variant Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
The lack of information about the Omicron COVID-19 variant can be anxiety-inducing. In the coming days, there will be more known about how to best protect ourselves. Below we answer some frequently asked questions about the Omicron variant.
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Should I still get a COVID-19 booster shot?
Yes, even with some news of the Omicron variant potentially evading vaccine-induced immunity, there is no evidence that the vaccine is not effective against the Omicron variant; therefore, you should still get a booster when eligible. Building a robust immune response by getting a COVID-19 booster shot can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the severity of the disease in case you get infected.
Between the rapid mutation of the coronavirus and low vaccination rates, we will likely need annual COVID-19 booster shots, similar to the flu shot. We learn to live with a new normal without completely restricting daily life.
Can I get the Omicron variant if I already had COVID?
Yes, there have been reports of reinfection. People who have recovered from COVID-19 infection have gotten the Omicron variant. This could be due to waning immunity or because the variant can evade immunity induced from other strains, but it is too early to tell.
To prevent reinfection, we must continue to mask social distance as much as possible. In the coming weeks, more research is needed to determine how to protect against the Omicron variant.
What is President Biden’s Winter Plan?
President Biden has announced a new campaign to increase uptake of booster shots. He wants to require private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and is proposing stricter testing requirements for people entering the United States, regardless of vaccination status.
The new strategy does not entail shutdowns, lockdowns, or border closures but does urge vaccine mandates in the workplace and mask-wearing in public. The main aspects of the plan include:
- Expanded booster program: more appointments, more hours, more times, and walk-in sites.
- Increased vaccine access: new family vaccination clinics and a new policy called “test to stay” to keep children in school instead of quarantined at home.
- Expanded access to at-home COVID-19 tests: mandates private insurers cover the cost of at-home testing and free tests for people not covered by private insurance.
- Surge response teams: 40 new teams to provide support for overwhelmed hospitals and bring treatments to communities in need.
- Stricter testing requirements for travelers: both vaccinated, and unvaccinated international travelers must test negative within one day of departure, regardless of nationality.
Are there travel bans due to the Omicron COVID-19 variant?
Yes, new travel bans have been put in place to varying degrees. Israel, Morocco, and Japan have banned all foreign travelers for at least 14 days. The United States announced travel restrictions from eight countries in southern Africa, and Britain announced restrictions from ten. The European Union is currently considering restrictions.
The Omicron variant is similar to other variants but presents more mild cases. Thankfully, current PCR tests can detect the variant to help us stop the spread of COVID-19. In the coming days, we may see Omicron-specific booster shots if the existing ones prove ineffective.
If you are not feeling well, the best option is to get tested for COVID-19 at home or your local testing facility. Starting at an average of $25 per month, a membership with Mira unlocks access to services for many of your healthcare needs.
Alexis Bryan MPH, is a recent graduate of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. She is passionate about increasing access to care to improve health outcomes. Outside of work, she loves to travel, read, and pay too much attention to her plants.