If you feel like you’re becoming way too familiar with the Greek alphabet these days, you’re not alone. On November 26, the Omicron variant was officially classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a new form of the coronavirus, reminding the world that the Covid-19 pandemic is nowhere near over. It’s officially been detected in the U.S., and Americans remember how quickly the Delta variant took hold once it arrived stateside. All of this has parents concerned about what Omicron will do.
Immunology experts have been warning the public that, unless the majority of the population gets vaccinated, new variants will continue to pop up. For them, the genesis of a new variant isn’t surprising.
“The unvaccinated are allowing viruses to mutate. If we want to minimize the virus mutating, we need as many people vaccinated as possible,” says Hank Bernstein, D.O., MHCM, board-certified pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center and a member of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, in an interview with Romper. “There is no question that it’s important for those who are unvaccinated to be vaccinated, and it’s important for those who have completed their one- or two-shot series to get their boosters. That will make all the difference in the world around the development of variants.”
Should Parents Be Worried About The Omicron Variant?
Just how anxiety-ridden should parents be about yet another leaner, meaner version of the coronavirus? Doctors say for now there’s no need to panic.
“Practically speaking, at present, this shouldn’t change any of our behaviors,” says Vivek Cherian, M.D., a Chicago-based internal medicine physician at Amita Health, in an interview with Romper. “The same methodology still applies — get vaccinated and a booster when it’s available if you’re eligible, continue to wear masks, and social distance when possible, particularly in indoor public settings.”
The variant has officially reached the U.S. with a case in California of a traveler returning from South Africa with mild symptoms. But experts the world over are already studying Omicron to get answers to everyone’s questions, including whether the current vaccines are effective against it.
“We’re learning quickly, and certainly people should understand that the U.S. and countries around the world are collaborating to get a better handle on this virus. All the necessary steps are being taken to identify the variant and understand what it means, how easily it can transmit person to person, and how severe the disease is.”
Are Vaccinated Kids Protected From The Omicron Variant?
The answer to this question is, unfortunately, still unknown.
“What we have to do is get the virus and take antibodies from a vaccinated individual and see if the antibodies can neutralize this variant. If it does, we’re in good shape; if it doesn’t then we likely would have to modify our current vaccines,” Cherian says.
But even if Omicron can evade the vaccines, Cherian adds that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Being vaccinated can still lessen the severity of your child’s reaction to the virus.
“Remember, even when you have variants, we know that when you have a level of protection that you get from vaccines and the booster, and the chance of a severe outcome is reduced significantly.”
How Is Omicron Different From Past Variants?
With each new variant, we have the same questions: Is this one more contagious, vaccine-resistant, or does it cause more severe illness? As NPR reports, the Omicron variant has “about 50 mutations across its genome,” while the Delta variant had 20. This means it has the potential to be highly transmissible.
“There are several mutations around the spike protein, which is responsible for the virus binding to cells in your body, which suggests an increased level of transmissibility as well as suggesting it may evade some of our current defenses, such as antibodies induced by vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and convalescent plasma,” says Cherian.
USA Today reports that, as of November 29, there are no deaths attributed to this new variant, and no indications yet that it will cause more severe illness than other forms of the virus. The most common symptoms of Covid-19 still include fever or chills, loss of taste or smell, headache, shortness of breath, and more, per the CDC.
“It’s one thing to know if it’s readily transmissible from person to person, but it’s another to know how severe the variant is if you’re exposed, and we just don’t have that information yet,” Bernstein says.
Does The Omicron Variant Affect Kids Differently Than Other Forms Of Covid?
“It’s still too early to say for sure,” says Cherian. “According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, children under the age of 2 account for about 10% of total hospital admissions in the omicron epicenter in South Africa. What we don’t know is, are the increased rate of admissions actually reflective of children becoming sicker, or possible parents being overly cautious given the now global concerns about this new variant?”
“I don’t think it would present any different symptoms, but we don’t know whether it affects children any differently than adults. We don’t have enough information to assess that,” says Bernstein. “There’s been the suggestion that perhaps the college students where it was identified initially had mild symptoms, but it really is too early to tell.”
Bernstein noted that, as with any Covid infection, those who are elderly or immunocompromised may experience more severe illness from the omicron variant.
If Parents Are Vaccinated But Their Children Aren’t, Are Kids Protected From New Variants?
Being vaccinated will help prevent the spread of the virus from you to your children, which is one more reason to roll up your sleeves for your shots if you haven’t yet.
“The best way you can protect children who are not yet vaccinated is to surround them with fully vaccinated adults so you can feel safe in your home with your children and the rest of your family,” says Cherian.
In their November 26 statement about the Omicron variant, the CDC says the best ways to protect your family from the virus (in any form) haven’t changed:
“We know what it takes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. CDC recommends people follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing your hands frequently, and physically distancing from others. CDC also recommends that everyone 5 years and older protect themselves from COVID-19 by getting fully vaccinated. CDC encourages a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose for those who are eligible.”
“This is a global pandemic, and we all need to work together to get as many people vaccinated as possible, not just in the U.S. but around the world,” says Bernstein. “Until that happens, we’re going to be behind the 8 ball.”
Hank Bernstein, D.O., MHCM, board-certified pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center and a member of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
Vivek Cherian, M.D., a Chicago-based internal medicine physician at Amita Health