COVID-19 Interest Group

December 20, 2021

CIG Bulletin #24

Fasten Your Seat Belts – Omicron Is Here

(by Tina Etcheverry, Eva Gero and Pate Thomson)


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are based on information derived from public sources. We do not pretend to be experts in infectious diseases, but we are trying to bring our perspectives from medical and scientific training and offer our opinions.

To be safe, it’s time to fasten your seatbelts. Omicron is here!
We are concerned that people are starting to take risky behaviors and a more relaxed approach to COVID precautions (such as masking and social distancing). With our vaccinations and boosters on board, people are feeling more comfortable about socializing and gathering during the Holiday Season. Understandably, everyone is just plain tired of social distancing, wearing masks, and staying home! But this relaxed behavior is putting you, your family and everyone around you at risk.

We don’t know where this Omicron surge will go next. The fear is that our senior citizens (people over 65) will end up critically sick, hospitalized and even dying. Even if you are just mildly sick but develop long COVID complications, you may have significant long-lasting lung, heart or nerve damage (e.g., tinnitus or peripheral neuropathy).

The Omicron variant is a highly infectious, rapidly spreading version of COVID-19. It originated in South Africa, but now is the primary viral form in Europe and causing countries (UK and Netherlands) to move back into lock-down. Across the world there are significant restrictions to travel, business and social gatherings. Non-essential restaurants and museums are closed, and travel within Europe (e.g., UK to Germany) requires a 14-day quarantine. These lock-down decisions are based on the rapid spread of this new, highly contagious COVID species.

Most COVID infections are breakthroughs, in other words people who have full vaccination status and boosters are testing positive for coronavirus. Symptoms range from asymptomatic to mild cold-like illness to serious pneumonia requiring hospitalization.

Why is this happening?
Omicron carries 50+ new mutations, sharing some characteristics of the common cold versions of coronavirus and multiple spike protein mutations. It apparently can effectively target nasal tissue and reproduce faster. The R0 value (reproduction rate for infecting others) is 3 to 5, that’s 4-fold faster than the reproductive rate we see with Delta. At the rate of one person infecting 3 to 5 others, it doesn’t take long to take over the population.
Many people are asymptomatic, so they continue to go shopping, socialize, eat in restaurants and gather in groups. This effectively inoculates more people quickly.
The weather has turned cold, and most activities are now indoors in less ventilated spaces, giving the virus a significant advantage.
And it is Holiday Season! Time to travel and visit families.

What do we recommend?
First, get your booster. The initial round of vaccination will protect you for 6 months, but then your antibody titers drop. At this point, your protection against Omicron variant is less than 30% (from your original 95% level). A booster will bring this back up to 70%, but it’s not perfect. It will probably keep you from developing serious complications (as compared with illnesses in the non-vaccinated) but there are huge unknowns.
Avoid non-vaccinated people. Non-vaccinated people are 6x more likely to end up positive for COVID and 12x more likely to die from complications. You don’t want to share COVID with them, even if you are only mildly sick.
Keep family gatherings small.
Avoid large parties, especially indoor events and concerts.
Most of all, wear your mask (indoors and outside). This is no time to be cavalier about COVID!

In light of these new concerns, we will not be hosting in-person meetings at First Presbyterian Church for the month of January. Join us on Zoom! Our plan is to start hybrid meetings again on February 3rd, but we need to take precautions at this time and monitor the situation.