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Holiday Gatherings In the Age of the Omicron Variant

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach want to say right up front that, when it comes to the omicron variant of the coronavirus, we still don’t know much for sure, and likely won’t for at least another few weeks. But there are some things we are beginning to discover, and we can make a few assumptions about others.

Why the concern?

When the omicron variant first appeared in South Africa, researchers were concerned. It contained so many mutations on the spike protein shell —30 mutations from the original coronavirus. At least three of those mutations appeared to give the virus the ability to withstand the current coronavirus vaccines. Any antibodies provided by natural infection with COVID-19 also do not resist the mutations.

In addition, they worried that other mutations might make the virus more deadly or more transmissible.

Early indications so far are that only the latter is the case. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said last week that preliminary evidence—based largely on anecdote—shows the omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness than delta. But, it also appears to be more transmissible.

We want to stress that this is very early information. It is based mainly on observation by doctors who have been treating the few patients who have so far been infected with the omicron variant. Ongoing laboratory studies will tell us more soon.

What about the vaccines?

As for whether the current vaccines are effective against the new variant as they have been against the original strain and other variants, it’s still too early to tell. We should know more in the next few weeks, however.

It’s useful to remember that the vaccines were designed to fight off the more severe effects of the original strain. But they’ve also proven very effective against the alpha and delta variants. It’s reasonable at least at this point to infer that they’ll offer at least some protection against this newest variant.

New York University virologist Ned Landau studies how well the antibodies produced by the vaccines protect against the omicron variant. He believes that the current vaccines, including boosters, will be good enough.

“The laboratory data itself that we get in the next two weeks I don’t think will be sufficient to call for a new vaccine,” he told NBC News earlier this month.

A recent Pfizer-BioNTech study found that while the standard two-dose regimen was “significantly less effective at blocking the virus,” an additional booster shot “neutralized the Omicron variant in lab tests,” the company said in a statement.

We’ll learn much more in the coming weeks.

The current virus

Meanwhile, another thing to keep in mind is that the delta variant is still the dominant strain in the U.S. Right now we need to be more concerned about that one, especially as we’re gathering for the various holidays this time of year.

Whether to celebrate with relatives and friends largely depends on your risk tolerance and vaccination statuses, plus a few sensible precautions, experts say.

Remember that large family gatherings will include children who are not yet able to receive a vaccine. Also, older family members may be more at risk of infection despite being vaccinated, and others who are immunocompromised.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reminds people that vaccines are still the best way to avoid severe disease.

“If you and those you are gathering with are fully vaccinated, enjoy time together reconnecting over a traditional meal,” Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

“If there are people you plan to gather with who are a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated, try to keep the gathering small, and perhaps move it outdoors,” she said.

Other precautions

Because the coronavirus spreads easily through the air in enclosed spaces, ventilate indoor spaces by keeping doors and windows open.

Testing offers another extra measure of peace of mind, providing you can find the still-scarce rapid tests in drugstores. While not as accurate as the standard PCR test, they provide results in a matter of minutes vs. days. If someone tests positive, by the way, be sure they get a PCR test to confirm their infection status.

Those ages 65 and older should receive booster doses of the vaccine before mingling in mixed settings.

Finally, if you are feeling sick in any way—unusual tiredness, sniffles or stuffy nose, gastrointestinal issues—stay home.

Remember, the reason we’re dealing with an omicron variant is that only about 26% of the population of South Africa had a vaccination when it appeared. As we’ve said before, every time someone becomes infected with the coronavirus it allows the virus to mutate.

The only way to prevent the appearance of further mutations—and prolong the pandemic—is to deny the virus new hosts. And universal vaccination is the best way to achieve this.

1 Comment
  • Pat Sciarillo

    I received both Moderna shots back last Jan. And February. Then in August I received the Moderna “booster”. Now reading all these reports are confusing. One article said if you received the “booster” early then it was really a third shot not a booster? So darn confusing. Either way I think I’m covered.

    December 22, 2021 16:12
    reply
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