Monday, November 29, 2021

Coronavirus Update 11-29-2021: What we do know and don’t know about Omicron

While we digested our Thanksgiving turkey, news broke about a new COVID-19 variant making its way around the world — B.1.1.529, now officially named the Omicron variant. 

Here's what we know about Omicron, what we think we know, what we don't yet know, and, perhaps most importantly, what employers should be doing in response. 

What we know 

South African scientists first informed the World Health Organization about their discovery of the Omicron variant only five days ago. The WHO has now officially declared it a "high risk" "variant of concern." Omicron has now surfaced in countries all over the world, including Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Austria. 

Omicron has 32 different spike protein mutations, more than double the number seen in Delta, which is why this variant has scientists concerned.

That's it. 

What we think we know

Based on the speed with which this variant has surfaced since its discovery only five days ago, we believe Omicron is a more transmissible version of COVID-19. 

What we don't yet know

We don't know if Omicron has made its way into the United States (although it's reasonable to assume that it has).

We don't know if Omicron infections are more severe or dangerous than Delta, although anecdotally at least one doctor in South African has said that it appears to be less severe in the lone patient he treated. (Of course, that patient could also simply have a mild case of the virus.)

We don't know if our current vaccinations are effective against Omicron (although it's reasonable to assume that those who have been boosted stand a better chance of having immunity against this variant).

We don't know if this variant will take hold and take off like Delta did a few months ago.

What should employers do in response?

This is the million-dollar question. The answer? Exactly the same as we've been doing for the past several months. 

Encourage everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and encourage boosters for those who are already fully vaccinated. Vaccines remain our best defense against this virus spreading, making people seriously ill, and further mutating.

Require face coverings for the unvaccinated.

Prohibit those who have any symptoms of a Covid infection to stay home until they test negative, and remove anyone who tests positive from the workplace through the required isolation period.

Finally, don't panic! The news about Omicron is scary and depressing. We all have Covid fatigue and the thought of a new variant that is potentially more contagious and more dangerous is the last news anyone wants. The good news, however, is after almost two years of living with COVID-19 we know what to do and how to react. So let's wait, monitor developments, and see how this all plays out before we overreact.