Please note: As we continue to learn more about COVID-19, the information in this article may change. You can find our most up-to-date information about coronavirus here.

Recently, a new variant of the coronavirus has been spreading around the world. While we’re still learning about the omicron variant, we do know that the new virus has an unusually high number of mutations. Here’s what you need to know about the omicron variant and how to keep your family safe.

What is the omicron variant?

The SARS-CoV-2 omicron variant (B.1.1.529) was first identified in Botswana and South Africa. Named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, the World Health Organization recently declared omicron a “variant of concern” because of its high number of mutations that have the potential to make the virus more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.

How easily does omicron spread?

The omicron variant likely will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects that anyone with omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.

Will omicron cause more severe illness?

More data are needed to know if omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.

Will vaccines work against omicron?

Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths due to infection with the omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated will probably occur. With other variants, like the delta variant, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death. The recent emergence of omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.

Will treatments work against omicron?

Scientists are working to determine how well existing treatments for COVID-19 work against the omicron variant. Based on the changed genetic make-up of omicron, some treatments are likely to remain effective while others may be less effective.

How can I protect myself from the omicron variant?

While public health and medical professionals worldwide rush to learn more about the omicron variant, you have the power to keep omicron and other viruses away from you and your family. The power comes from Universal Precautions that have proven effective against not only COVID-19 but many viruses that spread from person to person when people talk, laugh, eat, sneeze, cough and do other activities with the viruses being propelled into the air.

The Universal Precautions have multiple layers. The more layers you do and the more often you do them, the more effective they are to protect you, your family and others around you.

  • Layer 1: Stay healthy and get vaccinated as soon as it’s your turn. Right now, the COVID-19 vaccine is available for children 5 years and older. Consult your healthcare providers for further guidance.
  • Layer 2: Clean your hands often with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. Hand sanitizer can effectively kill the germs on your hands and prevent harmful germs to enter your body and spreading to others. Wash your hands with soap and water to remove the germs from your hands.
  • Layer 3: Clean and disinfect counter surfaces often. You can obtain germicidal wipes in the grocery store. Using them to clean countertops, shared surfaces, etc. can remove germs and kill them if any remain.
  • Layer 4: Avoid crowds and keep a minimum of 6 feet away from others.
  • Layer 5: When it is not possible to be 6 feet away from others or in an indoor space, wear a mask that fits you.
  • Layer 6: Ask friends and family to hold off visiting if they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, the flu or other infectious diseases.
  • Layer 7: If you develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, the flu or other infectious diseases, self-isolate until you recover. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

As we live in this environment that is shared with many known or unknown viruses and other types of germs, we believe your health is in your hands.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Xiaoyan Song Xiaoyan Song, PhD, MBBS, MSc, is Chief Infection Control Officer at Children's National Hospital and a Professor of Pediatrics at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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