Just a month ago, the Delta variant of the coronavirus was wreaking havoc across the nation. Now, the highly contagious Omicron variant has replaced Delta as the dominant strain of COVID in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Delta variant, which is still circulating and is also highly contagious, accounted for more than 99.5 percent of coronavirus cases, according to CDC data. Now, federal health officials say Omicron accounts for 73 percent of new infections in the country.
Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in November after the variant was detected in South Africa. Omicron spreads more easily than the original COVID-19 virus but how easily it spreads compared to Delta remains unknown, the CDC said.
The Omicron variant has been detected in 89 countries, according to WHO. And, COVID-19 cases with the new variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in areas where there is community spread. “Given currently available data, it is likely that Omicron will outpace Delta where community transmission occurs,” WHO said in an update about the variant.
While much is still unknown about Omicron, medical experts say the variant transmits faster and more effectively than the Delta variant in the human bronchus (a large airway that leads from the trachea, also called “windpipe,” to a lung).
What’s more, experts say Omicron symptoms, which include dry cough, fever, headache, fatigue, and body aches, appears to be similar—but milder—to other COVID-10 symptoms.
A study from the University of Hong Kong found that Omicron is more infectious but it may have a less severe impact on people who become infected. But Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai, who led the study, noted that just the fact that Omicron affects more people “may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less pathogenic.”
What is believed to be the first known recorded death from Omicron was reported on December 20 in Harris County, Texas. County health officials there said the victim, a man between 50-60 years old, was at a higher risk of COVID complications because he had not been vaccinated.
With the Delta variant still in play and Omicron taking a life of its own, many state government leaders and health officials are putting COVID restrictions, including mask mandates, back in place that was once eased as the number of COVID cases began to drop earlier this year.
Federal COVID-19 Mandates In Court Battle
In November, President Joe Biden mandated that businesses with 100 or more employees are to require their workers to be vaccinated. Unvaccinated workers would need to be tested weekly and wear masks while working. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) projected that the mandate would cover about 84 million workers, could save 6,500 lives, and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.
But, the Democratic president’s mandate was swiftly challenged in lawsuits filed by 27 Republican-led states, as well as by individual businesses and business groups. On November 12, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay of the mandate. However, because of the large number of lawsuits, the cases were consolidated and transferred to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio.
On Dec. 17, the 6th Circuit Court reinstated the federal vaccine mandate. The court’s opinion reads, in part, “It is difficult to imagine what more OSHA could do or rely on to justify its finding that workers face grave danger in the workplace. It is not appropriate to second-guess that agency determination considering the substantial evidence, including many peer-reviewed scientific studies, on which it relied.”
A few hours after the appellate ruling, at least three petitions were filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to intervene and block the mandate. On December 22, the Supreme Court released an order stating that the court will hold oral arguments on Jan. 7, 2022, to consider legal challenges to the vaccine mandates for health care workers and large companies.
Are COVID-19 Vaccine Boosters Effective Against Omicron?
Before Omicron began spreading nationwide, public health officials were urging fully vaccinated people to get a COVID-19 booster shot. Health officials say the number of antibodies from the initial vaccine doses decreases over time and the immune system may not be able to prevent a coronavirus infection.
The question now is whether a third dose of a COVID vaccine is effective against Omicron. Preliminary data shows that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines are not as effective against the Omicron variant as they are against the Delta variant. A third dose, however, brings more protection, according to a study from the UK Health Security Agency.
The study showed that a third dose of a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine provided 70-75 percent protection against Omicron infection symptoms. According to the data, two doses of the Pfizer vaccine provided just under 40-percent protection about 25 weeks after the second dose compared to around 60-percent protection against Delta.
Moderna announced that a booster dose of 50 micrograms, nearly half of what is administered during the first two doses, increases neutralizing antibody levels by 37-fold.
“To respond to this highly transmissible variant, Moderna will continue to rapidly advance an Omicron-specific booster candidate into clinical testing in case it becomes necessary in the future,” Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a statement announcing its preliminary booster data.
Public health officials continue to urge unvaccinated and partially vaccinated Americans to get fully vaccinated and urge fully vaccinated Americans to get a booster shot. Those who remain unvaccinated have a 10-times greater risk of testing positive and 20 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than those vaccinated and boosted, according to CDC data through October.
Americans should not expect things to get better any time soon, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Fauci predicted that the Omicron variant is “going to take over.”
“Because with Omicron, that we’re dealing with, it is going to be a tough few weeks to months as we get deeper into the winter,” Fauci said.