Answers to commonly asked questions about the omicron variant

·6 min read

Jan. 17—In short order, the latest coronavirus variant, omicron, has spread throughout the country, forcing Mainers to reorder their lives once more.

We'll try to answer some of the most common recent questions here.

Q: How is omicron different from any other version of the virus that's been in our lives for nearly two years?

A: Perhaps the biggest difference with omicron is how easily transmissible this variant is. When delta became the dominant strain of coronavirus this summer, it was said to be far more contagious than previous versions. And omicron is far more transmissible than delta.

Omicron also appears to be more adept at producing breakthrough infections among those who are fully vaccinated, and even those who have gotten booster shots. However, the risk of serious illness or death is dramatically lower for those who are vaccinated and boosted.

On the positive side, there are some data that suggest — albeit not conclusively — that omicron is a milder strain than delta. Even if that proves true, because it's so highly transmissible, it will still lead to a lot of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks ahead.

Q: If omicron is spreading so rapidly, including among those who are vaccinated, does that mean vaccinations aren't working?

A: No. The primary purpose of vaccines is to train the body to fight off a virus. Overwhelming research has shown that people who are fully vaccinated, and boosted when appropriate, are not getting as sick, even from omicron.

"If anything, the undiscussed story of the pandemic is just how good the vaccines work at what they were designed to do: keep people alive, keep them out of the hospital, keep them off a ventilator," Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah said this month.

Additionally, even if a fully vaccinated person contracts omicron, the science has shown that they pass along less virus for a shorter period of time to others. Research also suggests that the risk of developing "long COVID" is significantly lessened for those who are vaccinated.

Q: When do I know to get tested and how do I find a test?

A: As has been the case throughout the pandemic, people should get tested if they develop symptoms or if they have a known exposure to someone who has tested positive.

At this stage of the pandemic, however, testing has become a headache for many. Unprecedented demand has made finding a test — both at a pharmacy or health care setting and the rapid at-home varieties — extremely challenging.

Some testing sites are more likely to offer tests to people who are symptomatic, but health experts are advising that anyone who develops symptoms and cannot get tested should isolate for at least five days.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills said this month that her administration has purchased 250,000 rapid tests that it plans to distribute to Walgreens pharmacies, health care sites, schools and congregate care settings. Those tests will be free. Mills said she's also "looking at options to distribute tests directly to Maine people," but that hasn't happened yet.

The Biden Administration also has announced that it plans to distribute 1 billion at-home tests to Americans through the mail beginning next week. The website COVIDtests.gov will go live on Jan. 19 for people to sign up. The tests are free, but households will be limited to four tests.

Additionally, starting on Saturday, private insurance companies will be required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home rapid tests per month, allowing Americans to be reimbursed for tests they purchase at pharmacies and online retailers.

Q: What do I do if I test positive?

A: The U.S. CDC recently updated its guidelines for how long people should isolate if they test positive. The length of time has been reduced from 10 days to five, unless people are still symptomatic at five days. People also should be vigilant about wearing a mask around others for five additional days.

Some have questioned whether the relaxed rules are prudent given how easily omicron spreads, but Shah said he supports the change.

"Based on the scientific underpinnings of this, what we see is that the bulk of transmission of COVID-19 occurs on the two days before you have symptoms and then the three to four to five days after you develop symptoms," he said. "That was the rationale ... to slim down the days of isolation from 10 days to five days."

Q: Why did the state relax rules for schools at the same time the risk of outbreaks is going up?

A: In short, the state updated its quarantine and isolation guidelines for schools to be in line with the new U.S. CDC guidance. But it was also an acknowledgment that the spread of omicron could be disruptive, and there is a strong interest in keeping schools open.

State education Commissioner Pender Makin said this month that schools are facing "unfathomable challenges" in dealing with the rapid spread of the virus in communities. Indeed, schools across the state are seeing widespread absences, both among students and staff members. The hope is that the shorter quarantine and isolation guidelines will make it easier to keep schools open, although some have switched to remote learning temporarily.

Q: Given how easily omicron has been spreading, should I consider changing the type of mask I use?

A: Some health experts have suggested that people might benefit from upgrading their masks, especially those who have been wearing primarily cloth masks.

The U.S. CDC on Friday encouraged more Americans to wear the kind of N95 or KN95 masks used by health-care workers, which had been in short supply early in the pandemic and can be cost-prohibitive for some. President Biden announced that his administration was planning to make "high-quality masks" available for free soon, although details of that plan were not yet available.

Shah, however, said just because surgical or other masks might work better doesn't mean cloth masks are useless. He said as long as they are thick enough so light doesn't pass through and they fit well, they will provide protection.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, masks work best when they are worn properly (over the nose) and when there is widespread compliance.

Q: Is it possible that omicron will help get us closer to herd immunity?

A: One of the possible silver linings about the rise of omicron is that it might produce so much immunity that the virus could fizzle out entirely. Since the pandemic began, experts have discussed herd immunity as a means of getting past this. There was hope that the vaccines might achieve that goal, but it hasn't happened, largely because many parts of the world still don't have access and because vaccine hesitancy remains widespread.

But early research suggests that omicron's surge could be short-lived. In other countries, South Africa and England, in particular, steep increases in transmission were followed shortly by sharp declines. There are also signs that might be happening already in major metropolitan areas like Boston and New York.

Still, Shah has urged patience.

"The modern history of COVID has been marked by individuals who made predictions ... based on hope, and (who) have turned out to be wrong," he said.

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