COVID-19 omicron variant may require increased personal vigilance

·4 min read

Your Christmas stocking stuffer may already be on the discount table.

Omicron is the newest variant of COVID-19. It was first reported in South Africa and already the U.S. and European nations have banned travel from there, and other travel restrictions may be pending. The U.S. has also banned travel from other African nations.

Cases of omicron have been confirmed in Italy, Germany, and the U.K. It had been considered a ‘variant of interest, but has now become a ‘variant of concern’. For us non-scientists, we may feel a little concern at not knowing how many variants of interest exist and where they are. The beta variant, also first detected in South Africa, was supplanted by delta as a potential danger, at least here.

The timing on this is unfortunate as well. Last year, when vaccines were not widely available, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations exploded after Thanksgiving — confirmed cases jumped from 986 to 2,323 in Massachusetts. At the time, it was reported as a “135%” jump, which always grabs attention.

Now, the newest reports state that the daily average of new COVID cases in Massachusetts is up 70%, the positive test rate is up about 100%, and the number of people hospitalized with COVID is up 36%. Before panicking, it is always a good idea to find the numbers when you read these percentage jumps — going from 2 to 6 is 300 percent, after all.

"There are three big questions,” Gov. Baker told WGBH News earlier this week. "The first is the transmissibility relative to previous variants. The second is the nature of the impact that it has on the people who get infected by it, which is a really important issue and a hard one for people to answer immediately. The third is, what's the likely issue associated with this relative to the vaccines that are already available? And that question, I think, will be answered relatively quickly."

That is likely true. This Thanksgiving, about 85% of the state's population is at least partially vaccinated against the virus. The likelihood of another hundred-plus percentage jump is far less, but simple weariness has made people less careful. And the rhetoric surrounding the issue has gone from strident to toxic.

This week a federal judge overturned a federal mandate that all health care workers must be vaccinated. Ten state governments had sued the Biden administration over the mandate, and the court agreed that the federal government had no right to dictate procedure to the states, especially since there was no comment period or right to appeal the new regulation.

A similar suit filed against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by employers with 100 workers or more also resulted in a suspension of enforcement of the new mandate. But the Supreme Court refused without comment to hear a suit from Massachusetts General Hospital employees who sought to lift the mandate. So the only thing that is clear is that it is unclear.

Back in 2012, we had a masking scare over SARS. Unlike this variant COVID pandemic, SARS was something of a false alarm and the rush to buy masks never took off. So on the CVS discount table, there was a box of 250 masks for two dollars. I bought it, took it home, and stuck it in the back of a closet.

When COVID was announced, I dug it back out. Personal protective equipment was scarce then, and masks were being re-used in hospital emergency rooms. I sent a few to a nurse I knew in Saugus, and they were the right sort.

When COVID started, I bought two charcoal filter masks from Cambridge Mask Company, which supplies military equipment to the U.K. I haven’t had to open them yet, except to look at them, but they are in the back of that same closet.

With variants blossoming, we may well have to go back to masking and distance protocols. So stock up on the discount table, and maybe put them into stockings with a red and green ribbon. It’s not much of a Christmas tip, but ‘one never knows, does one’?

Cynthia Stead is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times and can be contacted at

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cynthia Stead: omicron variant may require increased personal vigilance

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