3 Facts About the Omicron Surge

Editor’s note: This article originally ran December 23, 2021, and was updated January 10, 2022.

If it seems like COVID-19 is everywhere right now—it is. The United States is now experiencing its highest case counts of the pandemic, thanks to the highly contagious omicron variant.

“This is going to be a very difficult winter as cases infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19 spike high,” says UNC Health infectious diseases specialist David Wohl, MD. “We are ready for this pandemic to be done, but it is hardly done with us.”

The good news? We have widely available vaccines and boosters that can continue to protect us, and omicron is different from previous variants in important ways. Read on to learn more.

1. Vaccines, especially boosters, continue to offer important protection.

There is strong evidence from laboratory studies and real-world reporting that vaccines protect against infection and, especially, severe disease due to this variant.

Booster shots have been shown particularly helpful; researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital published a new study, not yet peer-reviewed, that shows mRNA booster shots are highly effective at neutralizing omicron (that’s Pfizer and Moderna). They found that the blood from people who had the original shots but had not been boosted had less activity against the virus.

The data are lining up to show that vaccines and boosters remain key to avoid getting seriously ill, Dr. Wohl says.

2. Omicron appears to be significantly more contagious than delta.

The speed at which omicron is spreading makes it clear that it is much more contagious than delta. Therefore, health officials are urging people to take extra precautions to avoid infection, even if you are vaccinated.

“The rate at which omicron has taken over delta is remarkable and shows how much more transmissible this variant is. What worked to avoid delta infection may not be enough to prevent catching omicron so people should be vigilant with masking and distancing, and, of course, being vaccinated,” Dr. Wohl advises.

There is early evidence that omicron causes less severe disease than previous variants. Even so, infection rates are so high that overextended hospitals are still struggling to care for patients, both those with COVID-19 and those with other conditions. Vulnerable populations, such as older adults and the immunocompromised, are still susceptible to serious illness and death.

3. Masks, avoiding crowds, physical distancing and testing still work to prevent omicron transmission.

The methods we’ve used since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to help prevent COVID-19 will still help us now. If you’re going to be around other people inside who are not from your household, particularly if some of those people might be unvaccinated or the group is a large one, wear a properly fitting mask over your mouth and nose.

People who have relaxed some of their COVID-19 precautions in recent months might want to be a bit more careful with omicron spreading. That means mask-wearing in the grocery store, avoiding crowded events, or wearing a mask when visiting older relatives, for example.

Testing, including rapid at-home tests that can be bought at the drugstore, is helpful. If you are going to gather in a group or travel, it’s a good idea to get tested at a testing site—PCR tests are the most accurate—or do an at-home test. The at-home versions aren’t perfect, but they do a pretty good job of detecting infectious cases, Dr. Wohl says. If you test positive, you need to stay away from others and avoid transmission.

And while COVID-19 is an airborne disease, keep up regular hand-washing and disinfection of surfaces, which will also help reduce the transmission of flu, RSV and other common winter infections.

“It is hard to be dealing with another winter of surging cases and hospitalization and pandemic precautions,” Dr. Wohl says. “But we have the tools to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safer. If we can keep this surge short, we will avoid lockdowns and other mitigations that none of us want to see again.”