For those exhausted and weary after almost two years of the pandemic, the news of a new Covid-19 variant felt like a punch to the gut. Would this variant be more dangerous? Would the vaccines continue to be protective? Would lockdowns return?
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Though many questions about the omicron variant remain unanswered, scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying respiratory viruses offer this reminder: This is still an airborne virus, spread not only through droplets from sneezes and coughs, but also by talking and breathing close to another person.
Tried-and-true infection control advice holds, experts said.
Wear masks. Wash your hands. Maintain an appropriate physical distance among strangers, especially indoors. And by all means, they say, get vaccinated.
“We don’t have to sit around and be victims to this virus,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
How the omicron variant affects the available vaccines remains unclear. But experts say that even if the variant lessens the shots’ effectiveness, it is highly unlikely that it would render them useless.
“Partial protection is better than no protection,” Schaffner said.
Dr. Brian Garibaldi, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, agreed.
“It’s not like the vaccines are an on-off switch where you’re going to go from a high level of protection against the delta variant to no level of protection against omicron.”
The highly transmissible delta variant remains the dominant strain of the virus worldwide, as well as in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, public health experts used their most measured voices to predict what they are all certain will occur in the coming days: Omicron will be detected in the U.S.
“It is my absolute expectation that we’ll see cases here, but that doesn’t necessarily need to invoke a frenzy,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert and an associate professor of medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine.
What it should do, experts said, is prompt people to reset their personal infection control measures.
“We’d all like to let our guard down,” said Dr. William Petri, chief of the division of infectious diseases and international health at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.
But “it behooves us to continue doing the common sense things that protect other people, like wearing masks when you’re in the grocery store,” he said.
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That includes vaccinating the unvaccinated, and booster shots for those who haven’t got them yet.
Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 will do whatever they can to survive. That is why they tend to evolve to become more contagious, figuring out ways to get around the best defenses.
Even if omicron works to evade our bodies’ guards, Wolfe said, referring to the vaccines, “a booster simply puts a whole bunch more guards at the front door.”
Garibaldi, of Johns Hopkins, said that “this is just another sign that it’s time to step up.”
“If you haven’t been vaccinated and you’re able to do so, what are you waiting for?”
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