Information on the COVID-19 Omicron Variant
Since we first publicly encountered COVID-19 in early 2020, the impact its spread has had on the US has been substantial. From panic to denial, the response has varied over these past two years, with political discussion taking priority over the united effort to limit spread for the sake of public health safety. Regardless, in-depth information regarding SARS-CoV-2 and its variants is imperative to reducing the spread and the goal of this article is to highlight all possible recent information on COVID-19, the Omicron variant, and what you need to know about how to stay safe during the duration of the pandemic.
Variants and COVID-19
It, unfortunately, is possible that many people either have not heard of the new variants or do not understand what a viral variant is. A variant is essentially a new version of a virus that surfaces due to mutations during its spread – something like a smartphone system update. There may be new features, or old features may be changed to be more effective, and this is what can be seen with COVID-19 and one of its more recent variants, Omicron. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights that the Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 24, 2021; it was then named ‘Omicron’ and classified as a Variant of Concern (VOC) on Nov. 26, 2021. After having designated Omicron as a VOC on Nov. 30, 2021, the first confirmed U.S. case of Omicron was identified on Dec. 1, 2021, officially beginning the trend of infections up to this current point.
Staying updated on the mutations of COVID-19 and subsequent variants can encourage responsible health choices and improved efforts to reduce the spread. That said, checking with the CDC website for updates on COVID-19 information is beneficial to both individual and community health.
Comparisons and Symptoms
The biggest change that people are noticing is that it seems easier to get Omicron compared to previous strains of COVID-19. It is currently unknown how efficiently Omicron can spread, though the spike in recent cases shows that the Omicron variant may be one of the most transmissible variants thus far. What is important to note here is that you can become infected with the Omicron variant and following variants regardless of whether you are fully or partially vaccinated. These are called breakthrough infections, where a fully vaccinated individual can still be infected and experience the illness. Despite this, being fully vaccinated is the best current protection against severe Coronavirus symptoms and will reduce the likelihood of death from COVID-19.
When it comes to symptoms, it is important to note that they tend to resemble cold symptoms such as having a sore throat, recurring cough and sore muscles without physical activity. There are even cases where people believed they had the flu, since they experienced nausea, vomiting, fever and/or chills. The key difference between Omicron and past COVID-19 strains is that the symptoms experienced seem to vary from individual to individual, as some may lose their senses of smell and taste while others do not. Due to the sheer amount of overlap between Omicron, the common cold and the flu, it is important to get tested as soon as possible to best prepare for the situation at hand and better be able to respond. The biggest risk is for those who are immunocompromised, as the COVID-19 infection has a higher likelihood of killing them due to their weakened immune system.
Limiting the Spread
Limiting the spread has been made more difficult due to the way U.S. society functions, with work having been made to be the ultimate priority. The CDC has encouraged individuals to wait 5 days after their last COVID symptom before returning to work, and to wear a well-fitting mask for at least 10 days after exposure to COVID-19. The CDC gives their recommendations for masks as well.
The expectation for upholding public health increases for schools, such as UIS, who are responsible for ensuring that education does not come at the cost of student health and safety. As such, UIS students living on campus or attending in-person classes are encouraged to be fully vaccinated, receive their booster COVID-19 vaccine and test weekly at varying frequencies depending on their situation. UIS COVID-19 regulations state that if you are fully vaccinated and have received a booster, you are to test once per week through February 10; if you are fully vaccinated without having received a booster, you are to test twice per week through February 10; if you are not fully vaccinated, and presumably have been exempt, you are to test three times per week until further notice. All booster records and vaccine information should be uploaded to the Medicat Patient Portal, and all tests need to be 48 hours apart. Information on finding a location to get the COVID-19 booster can be found here.
UIS is currently operating under High guidelines, where the current transmission rates are above 10% within both the community and on campus. This means at least 100 individuals have recently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 within the last few weeks, and that itself is a rough estimate at best given the recent spike in cases.
With the transmission rates for COVID-19 being this high, it has made the reality of the situation clearer for many people. Given the community response, it is possible that this pandemic could last upwards of 7 years, due to the sheer level of effort that it takes for a pandemic to be eradicated. However, the amount of info being spread during this time will be valuable to future disease prevention and community efforts against viral infections. If there is anything to keep in our list of 2022 resolutions, it is to stay updated, stay informed and stay safe as best we can.