Omicron the new COVID Variant & the Pandemic

Last week my office staff and I met to discuss loosening some of our COVID-19 precautions due to the low positivity rate in the area and the vaccination status of the local population. We all enjoyed the return to normal this Thanksgiving inviting family to celebrate with us for the first time in two years. My children, their spouses and kids all flew home for a joyful few days. Then came news of a new variant out of South Africa, Omicron.

It is too soon for scientists to know very much other than structurally there are multiple mutations on the P-spike. It is felt that this makes the virus more transmissible than previous versions including the Delta strain.

We don’t yet know if the Omicron variant will produce more severe illness. It is too soon to know the incubation period and most significant period of disease transmission. We do not know if the COVID-19 vaccines will work against Omicron or if it will dodge our immune response. Nor do we know if it will bypass the immune response of those previously infected? I expect it will take at least three weeks to get some of the answers but probably three months to have a better idea.

The travel restrictions imposed by world leaders are too little and probably too late. Banning foreign nationals from entering your country while permitting citizens to return assumes the virus recognizes national flags and only infects foreign nationals. This decision is an outrage. Returning citizens need to be tested frequently while being quarantined for about 14-days. That is the type of travel restriction required. It is highly probable the new strain is already in the USA.

We need mass testing to start again so we can identify infection quickly and we need the lab capability to identify the infecting viral strain. In the meantime, while we learn about what we are dealing with, we need to once again wear masks, keep our social distance and avoid crowded indoor venues.

My practice will continue to screen patients over the phone and at the door. We will limit entry into our office and require masks to be worn. We will stagger patient visit times so that patients coming and going are not in close proximity. If necessary, we will return to telehealth visits only.

On the bright side, we are much more prepared for a new surge than before. More individuals are vaccinated and boosted. The COVID treatment pills work via a mechanism that is independent from the genetic mutations on the P-spike protein. Vaccine manufacturers have already begun preparing a vaccine against the Omicron strain that will take three months to reach the market. It is disheartening to face this crisis again, but we will, and hope the knowledge we need to acquire is learned quickly.