The COVID Omicron Variant: What You Need To Know
January 06, 2022
Fast-spreading Omicron is now the predominant coronavirus variant, but the news is not all bad.
Omicron is causing less severe symptoms than Delta and other variants. Among unvaccinated patients, Omicron is less likely than previous variants to cause shortness of breath and severe lung damage that land people in the intensive care unit (ICU), says UH infectious disease specialist Keith Armitage, MD, medical director of the UH Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health.
That said, unvaccinated patients are still at risk of being hospitalized with severe symptoms including cough and fever, Dr. Armitage says. And some will develop lung problems that require intensive care and can be fatal.
Among critically ill patients, almost all are unvaccinated. Some immune-compromised, vaccinated patients also become severely ill.
Mild Symptoms for Vaccinated People
Among fully vaccinated people who get breakthrough infections, Omicron symptoms are generally mild, similar to the common cold: nasal congestion, mild cough and sometimes a sore throat.
“What we’re seeing is Omicron is less likely than other variants to cause viral infection of the lung,” Dr. Armitage says.
“Vaccinated people with normal immune systems seem to have very mild illnesses with Omicron. In hospitalized patients, who typically are unvaccinated, a significantly smaller proportion are ending up in the ICU compared to previous variants.”
Omicron also does not affect the sense of taste and smell like previous variants.
While the variant is proving to cause less lung damage, its ability to spread more efficiently and infect more people still poses a significant demand for hospital care. Dr. Armitage says Omicron reproduces quickly in the upper airway – about 70 times faster than previous variants – which causes people to be contagious very early in the course of infection.
The spread has been so fast that after the first cases were detected at UH, Omicron became the dominant strain – accounting for 95 percent of COVID-19 cases – over the course of one month, he says.
Dr. Armitage says another piece of good news is research showing Omicron provides immune protection against other known variants.That’s important because the virus is expected to become endemic, meaning it’s not going away. A variant that can help build immunities across the population without causing severe illness would provide a huge advantage, he says.
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