A new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been identified that leaves many people wondering if their vaccinations will continue to provide protection. While there is still much unknown about the Omicron variant, initial anecdotal reports bear some promising news.

The Omicron variant was first identified by researchers in South Africa in November and has since been found throughout the United States. In some parts of the world, it has overtaken Delta as the most prevalent variant, but early reports, while preliminary, indicate that while it does appear to be more transmissible, it doesn’t seem to be more deadly.

Researchers are still trying to determine how pathogenic the new variant is — meaning how capable Omicron is causing severe illness and death. But recent reports indicate that while the number of COVID-19 infections is rising in some areas, the number of deaths and hospitalizations is not. 

Many scientists do think that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is probably here to stay. In such a scenario, the virus would become endemic, much like the other human coronaviruses, with most people experiencing infection with mild symptoms multiple times over their lifetime, with only a small percentage of cases resulting in more serious illness. 

Vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 has so proven to be very effective in preventing serious illness and death. People who aren’t vaccinated, and those who are but have compromised immune systems or certain underlying health concerns, are at greatly increased risk for developing severe COVID-19 and its long-term complications. The majority of those who are fully vaccinated who have contracted a “breakthough” case report mild symptoms or no symptoms.

As the holiday approaches, health officials urge people to get their vaccinations and their boosters. It is still advised to wear a mask when in crowded areas and to maintain good hand hygiene practices. If you are exposed to someone with the virus, it’s important to get tested to avoid spreading the virus to someone in your family who is older or who may be immunosuppressed.  

REBECCA DUTCH, Ph.D., is the chair of the University of Kentucky’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry.

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