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Ojai's Dr. Halverson: Omicron variant: Another COVID-19 challenge we will overcome

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Dr. Jim Halverson of Ojai

 

By Dr. Jim Halverson

On Nov. 24, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 was reported to the World Health Organization. This new variant was first detected in specimens collected on Nov. 11 in Botswana and on Nov. 14 in South Africa. 

On Nov. 26, WHO named the variant Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern (VOC). On Dec. 1, the first confirmed U.S. case of Omicron was identified. Forty-two states have reported cases as of Dec. 18.

There is currently one other CoVID-19 VOC circulating in the United States — the Delta variant. Present in the United States since June, it has been responsible for the rise in weekly cases of COVID-19 in the United States from 12,000 in June to nearly 120,000 the first week of December.  It is two to three times more contagious than the original novel coronavirus.

Omicron developed due to the continued circulation of the virus among people around the world, especially (but not exclusively) in countries where immunizations rates are lower and mitigation measures are less restrictive. Unfortunately, that includes many areas of the United States. Being three to six times more contagious than the Delta variant, it will become the dominant form of the virus in the United States soon. 

Here are answers to questions I have been asked and researched over the last three weeks.

WHAT IS MY RISK OF GETTING OMICRON?

The unvaccinated people who live or work in our community have the greatest risk. Currently, Ventura County data show that the unvaccinated have an eight times higher rate of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant than the fully vaccinated (currently defined as having had two Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one Johnson and Johnson vaccine). That discrepancy will likely increase as more people get the booster vaccine. 

People who are unvaccinated and have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection more than six months ago likely have less risk than unvaccinated people but greater risk than people who have gotten the booster in the past three months. It is well known that immunity from prior infection or from vaccination decreases over time. In addition, if you were infected prior to June, you are not as well protected against Delta and Omicron, as they were not the variants present during that time.

If you have received a COVID-19 booster, you have the highest degree of protection that you can get against Delta and Omicron. Remember, your immune response to the vaccine is determined by several factors, including age, presence of chronic health conditions (obesity, diabetes, chronic heart, lung, liver or kidney disease, alcoholism) or being on immune-suppressant medications such as steroids or injectable medications for chronic rheumatological of gastrointestinal diseases. 

Do not stop the other measures you have taken to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. There will continue to be breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people with this new variant.

DOES THE OMICRON VARIANT CAUSE LESS SEVERE DISEASE THAN THE DELTA VARIANT?

It is too soon to know how severe Omicron can be. Currently, more cases are occurring in younger age groups who are less susceptible to severe disease. It is encouraging that the most vulnerable age group (people over the age of 65) have had far fewer reported cases, to date. This is likely due to the fact that the COVID-19 fully vaccinated rate for this age group is higher than for any other age groups in many countries. In the United States, 87.2% of people 65 and over are fully vaccinated.

WHAT CAN I DO TO STAY AS SAFE AS POSSIBLE THIS WINTER?

1. Get fully vaccinated. Data show that the booster shot significantly decreases your chance of infection from Delta and Omicron. If you have not yet received the vaccine, get started! More than 200 million people in the United States and 3 billion people worldwide have safely received one or more shot.

2. Get tested. Home tests are becoming more available and will give you a reliable result in 15 minutes. Testing sites are easy to locate by going to venturacountyrecovers.org/coronavirus-testing/. Encourage people you will be spending time with to do the same.

3. Stay up to date with our local situation through the Ventura County Public Health website. Local statistics are updated three times per week.

4. If you are traveling, know the current COVID-19 case rate in the area you are going to. 

5. Continue to mask in all appropriate situations. You demonstrate your care and concern for the health of others by doing that.

6. Stay healthy. Eat well. Exercise if you can. Allow time for adequate sleep and avoid increasing alcohol.

7. Avoid COVID news overload. The televised news will be sensationalized. That’s why people watch. Minimize your viewing. Rely on the sources that you trust.

8. Be optimistic. The percentage of people fully vaccinated in our area continues to improve. Eighty-five percent of Ventura County residents 18 and over have received at least one dose of the vaccine and more than 3,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are being given daily to our county residents. 

9. Be grateful. Thank those who have shown care for you during this challenging year and wish them well for the year to come.

Happy holidays and blessings for a safe and healthy 2022.

 

— Dr. Jim Halverson is a longtime Ojai physician, who wrote weekly columns on COVID-19 for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19 in Ventura County, and has written occasional columns on the pandemic since then. To view Dr. Halverson's previously published columns on COVID-19, visit: https://www.ojaivalleynews.com/columns/covid-19-dr-jim-halverson.

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