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What We Know About the Omicron Variant

NOTE: This COVID-19 post is over a year old and may contain outdated information. It has been left up for archival purposes only. For the most up-to-date information on masking, vaccines, and more, visit the CDC’s website.

While there are still many unknowns about the Omicron variant, researchers and public health officials are working hard to better understand it. In fact, scientists know much more about this variant today than they did just a week ago.

There are a few big questions surrounding this new variant: how efficiently it spreads from person to person, the severity of disease it causes, and how much protection the COVID-19 vaccines provide against it.

Researchers around the world now have enough information for us to start answering these questions. We will continue to update this page as our understanding of Omicron evolves.

What is the Omicron variant?

Omicron is a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. As viruses get passed from person to person, they can mutate and take on different characteristics – known as variants.

It has spread to a growing number of countries, including the U.S and right here in Missouri. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider it a variant of concern.

Does it spread more easily than earlier variants?

Researchers are working to pin down an exact answer, but early data points to yes.

The Omicron variant has mutated a lot (roughly 40 mutations) from the original strain. This tells researchers that it may behave differently from other variants.

Data from South Africa suggest it’s spreading more quickly than the Delta variant. Anyone with Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.

Is it more severe than earlier variants?

Right now, this is still unclear. It’s too early to know whether the average person becomes sicker from being infected with Omicron compared to earlier strains. The WHO has noted that Omicron symptoms appear similar to other variants.

Do the COVID-19 vaccines protect against Omicron?

Many experts are confident that the vaccines will remain effective against severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant, just as they have been against previous variants.

This further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters. Those eligible for a booster are encouraged to get it as soon as possible. Doing so maximizes protection against all variants of COVID-19.

However, fully vaccinated people should note that their risk of COVID-19 infection is not zero. More breakthrough infections were seen with the Delta variant, and this will likely occur with Omicron as well.

How can I protect myself?

While the Omicron variant is new, COVID-19 is not. We already have the necessary prevention tools in our toolbox:

  • Get vaccinated (6 months and older); get your booster if eligible
  • Wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor public places and around high-risk people
  • Maintain a safe social distance (6 feet) whenever possible; avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19

News of a new variant can be concerning, but there’s no need to panic. We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for almost two years, and we know that vaccines, masks, and social distancing – along with other measures – work to slow the spread and keep ourselves and our community safe.