What you can do about Omicron – and any future COVID-19 variants – Community News
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What you can do about Omicron – and any future COVID-19 variants

There is another new COVID in town. Last summer it was delta and this winter it is ommicron. At some point in the future it will be something different. New variants – and new “variations of concern” – will continue to appear. And if they do, then what? you to do?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the world got the news that the ommicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had been identified by South Africa’s intensive COVID-19 monitoring system. In fact, this particular variant was identified so early that no one knows much about it yet, except that it has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that allows it to infect cells. But that’s about all scientists can tell us right now. Is ommicron more dangerous or less dangerous than the variants currently in circulation? Can it bypass vaccination or previous infection? How transferable is it? Where did it originate? It will be weeks before anyone has clear answers to those questions.

Meanwhile, people all over the world know that this thing exists and that it’s mutated in a way that worries scientists, but they don’t know what individuals can or should do about it. That’s a stressful place to be. And it is a place that we will almost certainly visit again.

Every time viruses multiply, mutations take place. The more people get infected, the more chances there are of random mutations taking place and those mutations turning out to be something that helps the virus spread or survive. Only about 40 percent of the world’s population is fully vaccinated, and that number is much, much lower in countries that lack the money and infrastructure to buy and distribute vaccines. There are 14 African countries where the vaccination rate is less than 2 percent.

In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for new variants. And they will. Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to give you some tips on how to process news about a new variant.

1) Take a deep breath

“I think there is a lot of balance. That we stay informed and understand that there is a potential new threat, while also not losing all hope,” said Katelyn Jetelina, professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She said telling the public about new variants of concerns about education and transparency is not about instilling fear. The thing is out there. Scientists are working around the clock to better understand it. And you deserve to know that something is going on in the public health world that could potentially affect you.

But just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s a cause for alarm. Omicron — or some other variant — may not even be something anyone cares about a few months after it’s been detected.

2) Evaluate Your Personal Precautions

“I think [the announcement of a new variant of concern] is a time for people to stop and think about how they live their daily lives and what protection they have,” said Dr. Sharon Wright, chief infection prevention officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health in Boston. The good news here, she said, is that there are no surprises like when the new coronavirus was first discovered in 2019. You already know what to do to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19. Get vaccinated if you’re not. Have children vaccinated, if they are not. Wear a mask in indoor public places, especially if they are crowded. Avoid really crowded indoor events. Use tools like quick tests to reduce the risk of bringing something to a family gathering or party. Those are the basics. If you already do them, fine. You don’t have to go into complete lockdown just because scientists are investigating a new variant of care. If you’re not already doing those things, now is a good time to consider taking more of these precautions in your life.

This is also a great time to get a boost, Wright and Jetelina said. Booster vaccines have recently become available to all American adults, but there has been a fair amount of scientific debate about whether everyone really needs them. The appearance of omicron pushes that question into a “yes” for Jetelina. An existing vaccine booster, of course, is not optimized to protect against a variant that has just been discovered. But, Jetelina said, getting a booster can help your immune system not only temporarily make more antibodies, but also produce a wider variety of antibodies that can bind to recognize different parts of the virus. That would mean a greater chance that your immune system will recognize and attack even a highly mutated variant. This is something scientists are still studying, but it’s one reason some scientists think boosters could be helpful, even if your previous COVID-19 vaccinations still protect you from serious illness.

3) Advocates policies that really work

If it seems that individuals can’t do much in response to a new variant of concern, it’s because they can’t. This is a problem for scientists and politicians at this stage. But it matters how governments choose to respond. Travel bans have not been shown to prevent the spread of disease and could backfire by punishing those countries that have built the viral surveillance infrastructure needed to identify new variants early.

What would be helpful instead? More access to inexpensive rapid tests, Wright said, and Jetelina agreed. “Other countries have free rapid antigen tests for them… [they] are not perfect, but they are a fantastic tool for surveillance,” said Jetelina. Unfortunately, those tests in the US have remained expensive and often out of stock. If the government could find a way to change that, it could really make a difference to public health.

The other big policy that could change things requires international effort. We need improved vaccine capability, Jetelina said. Providing boosters and vaccines to our own population is great. But it won’t stop the development of new variants, while there are still places where more than 90 percent of the population is totally unvaccinated. Whatever happens to ommicron, new variants will emerge. But vaccine equality is the way to stop new variants before they start.

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Rakesh

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