The omicron variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in South Africa in November of 2021, now accounts for at least three-quarters of all new cases of the virus in the United States. The new variant has been reported in nearly every state, and accounts for up to 90% of new cases in some areas of the country, like New York. And although the CDC and scientists have said that the variant seems milder than others, it is the most contagious Covid-19 variant thus far, prompting some countries to re-impose lockdowns.
The omicron variant arrived in the US around Thanksgiving time, and less than a month later it had already accounted for around 73% of cases in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They have suggested that this variant of the virus is spreading more easily because it’s possible that a smaller amount of omicron is required to cause an infection.
The symptoms of the omicron variant are mild enough that many people are overcoming it, especially if they are both vaccinated and boosted. Still, some people are experiencing long Covid after being infected with the variant, especially if they are unvaccinated or have not received a booster shot.
The symptoms of this variant tend to come on more quickly after infection than with other variants, typically 3 days after exposure. “It’s mostly that runny nose, sore throat, and nasal congestion,” says Dr. John Vanchiere, the associate director of the Center for Emerging Viral Threats at LSU Health Shreveport. “The cough is milder [than previous variants] if there’s any cough at all, and fever seems to be a little less common.”
Doctors are saying that, even though the symptoms associated with omicron are mild, some people are experiencing symptoms for an extended period of time, a phenomenon known as long Covid. Most people that experience this will probably not die from Covid but could be left with debilitating symptoms that might be permanent. For example, around 30% of Covid-19 patients are experiencing chronic fatigue syndrome, which can be a lifelong disability.
“While omicron does appear to be less severe compared to delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as ‘mild,'” said the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Thursday. “Just like previous variants, omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people.”
Indeed, hospitalizations across the U.S. now stand at more than 126,000 per day, and more than 1 in every 4 ICU beds is filled with a Covid-19 patient, according to the latest data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Countries Locking Down
Some countries have responded to this new and highly contagious variant by reinstating lockdowns. For example, the Netherlands is locking down again, and Hong Kong authorities have announced a 2-week ban on flights from the U.S. and 7 other countries. The two-week ban will be in effect until January 21, and includes flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Britain, and the United States.
When Will Omicron Peak?
Epidemiologists have created a mathematical model projecting omicron’s spread, which predicts that the United States is likely to document more Covid-19 cases in January than in any previous month of the pandemic, but that a smaller fraction of those cases will require hospitalization. They also say that the long-term implications of omicron remain unknown, but in the near term, everyone should expect a month of intense disruption.