The newest Covid variant of concern, known as the Omicron variant, has parents everywhere on high alert. The ever-increasing case numbers thanks to this highly contagious strain may give some people flashbacks to March 2020, when we first entered pandemic lockdown. But that was pre-vaccines, and we’re in a better position now to pivot accordingly. Vaccines are currently available for kids age 5 and up, boosters especially have been shown to keep severe disease at bay, and the FDA has just authorized boosters of the Pfizer vaccine for kids over age 12.
In a press briefing on Monday, Nov. 29, just days after the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a variant of concern, President Biden urged Americans to keep calm. “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” the president stated. “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”
Jan. 3: After weeks of waiting, we now have more information about the latest Covid variant of concern, Omicron. Here’s the topline on what parents need to know.
What we know about transmission
Omicron seems to spread twice as fast as the Delta variant, now officially outpacing Delta in the U.S. In the week ending Dec. 25, the CDC estimated that 58% of the country’s new cases were attributed to Omicron. Researchers have found that the variant’s rate of transmission (Rt) is nearly 2.5 times that of Delta’s, but Delta is still a continued threat, accounting for 41% of new cases.
More people are getting sick than we've seen before. Researchers in Britain found that in households where one person was infected with the variant, other household members were 3.2 times more likely to be infected than previously seen with other variants.
Case numbers are skyrocketing in the U.S., and pediatric infections are on the rise, too. Recent data from The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows that, for the week ending Dec. 23, pediatric cases of Covid were up 50% from where they were at the beginning of December. Now, 1 in 10 children has tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.
What we know about disease severity
The silver lining here is that Omicron infection seems to be somewhat mild—but that's primarily for vaccinated individuals or those who have recovered from previous infection, both of which can confer some immune benefit and make disease infection/reinfection less intense. Severe disease is still rare in children.
But for the unvaccinated or previously uninfected, while contracting the milder Omicron strain is means it's less likely than Delta to lead to hospitalization or death, it's still more likely than if you were vaccinated.
Omicron is also more likely to spare the lungs in a way previous strains did not, staying focused in the upper respiratory tract like the nose and throat rather than moving down to the lungs.
What we know about vaccine and booster protection
Experts are noticing an increase in reinfections—this suggests that the virus may be able to sidestep some of the body’s immune defenses. More vaccinated people are also becoming infected with the virus, meaning this strain is less susceptible to the vaccines' strengths.
Several recent studies have been performed on the mRNA vaccines' ability to stand up to Omicron. While two doses of Moderna or Pfizer offers limited protection against Omicron, a booster shot from either company can bump up antibody levels drastically.
However, the Pfizer vaccine (recently authorized for kids ages 5 and up), still offers protection from severe forms of the virus. Additionally, having received two doses of an mRNA vaccine and recovered from previous infection also seems to be somewhat protective against the new variant.
Vaccine boosters are the best strategy for prevention
The best thing you can do now to prevent infection is to get a booster shot, and ensure everyone in your family who is eligible for vaccination is vaccinated as soon as possible. All people over the age of 12 who got a Covid vaccine more than 5 months ago (recently shortened from 6 months) are eligible for a third dose, and children ages 5 and up are currently eligible to receive two initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
What we know about hospitalization in kids
Though hospitalizations from Covid are rare among kids, we're starting to see a spike in this metric, too. In New York City, which was hit hard by Omicron infections in mid-December, pediatric hospitalizations jumped by 5-fold in just three weeks. Still, data from the AAP shows that hospitalization is very rare in the under-18 age group, accounting for just 0.1% to 1.8% of all Covid cases in kids. If your child tests positive for the virus, talk to your child's pediatrician about what signs of severe illness to look out for.
What we know about travel
The variant has now been detected in all 50 U.S. states and in more than 80 countries around the world. Be sure to keep up with the most recent international travel restrictions on the CDC website. The CDC now recommends you do not travel overseas if you’re not fully vaccinated—that means kids under 5, too, who aren’t yet eligible for a shot.
Fully vaccinated, as defined by the CDC, is two weeks after your second dose. A booster shot for those 18 and up who were vaccinated more than 6 months ago offers more protection.
If you have plans for domestic travel, here’s what you need to know:
- If you’re flying, the CDC recommends you delay flight travel until you and every member of your family is fully vaccinated.
- If you’re taking the train or using public transportation, wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status.
- For your trip, stock up on disposable masks with a high level of protection, like KF94s or KN95s, for both kids and adults, rather than reusable cloth masks.
- Bring home-testing kits with you, so you can test at your destination and before you leave.
- Check the case levels at your destination, and make decisions accordingly—maybe you’ll only get takeout from restaurants or eat in a vaccinated family member’s home, but won’t opt for indoor dining.
- Talk to your primary care doctor and your child’s pediatrician for more specific advice around your travel plans.
Are worrisome variants the new normal?
A virus’ primary goal is to mutate, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus has done just that, many times over. Omicron is actually the seventh variant scientists have seen arise as a “variant of interest” since the pandemic started.
Omicron was upgraded to “variant of concern” after seeing a rapid uptick in infections in South Africa, where the virus was first noticed. And though health officials are sounding the alarm, we have more tools at our disposal now, including masks, boosters and, most recently, vaccines for younger populations. With more of the population vaccinated, the virus will have fewer unvaccinated hosts to infect, spread and eventually mutate among.
What can you do now?
Now's not the time to let protection measures fall by the wayside. Try to keep your guard up by taking the following actions:
- Wearing masks indoors at public places like stores and schools
- Upgrading masks to those with higher protection, like KN95s and KF94s
- Vaccinate your children if they’re eligible
- Get boosters for your children over age 12 if they're eligible
- Get yourself a booster shot if it’s been more than 6 months since your last Covid shot
- Regularly test yourself and family members before and after you go to any events
It’s also important to try not to panic, and to remember that we’re not where we were when the pandemic started. “We now have a better understanding of how the virus is transmitted from person to person. We have antivirals that are coming down the pike,” says Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an infectious-disease physician, virologist and global-health expert at Emory University in the Atlantic. “We have a better understanding of how to manage and treat cases of people who do get infected. We have vaccines and incredible mRNA technology that allows us to adapt quickly to a changing virus, and we will have second-generation vaccines. It’s definitely not back to square one.”
A version of this post was originally published on Nov. 29. It has been updated.