Experts are tracking the spread of the Omicron variant, but there's still many uncertainties. Is it more transmissible than previous COVID-19 strains? Does it affect children more severely? We spoke with experts to learn more.
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By now, you've heard about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which is currently dominant in America. Preliminary evidence suggests it could be more transmissible than previous strains of the coronavirus. It also seems to evade protection from vaccines or past infections.

Omicron (B.1.1.529) was initially detected in southern Africa in November 2021, and it was found in America in December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Now it's spreading across the country, where it's leading to vast upticks in cases.

But despite the rising COVID-19 numbers, experts say there's no reason to panic. That's because everyone aged 5 and up is eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, booster shots are approved for those 16 and older, and health officials understand best practices for warding off the virus (keep wearing those face masks!).

Plus, thankfully, symptoms appear to be relatively mild for most people—although severe cases are also possible, especially for unvaccinated people. A December 16 study out of London compared side effects of the Delta variant (based on data from October) and the Omicron variant (based on data from December). So far, they appear to be similar, with the five most common symptoms being runny nose, headache, fever, fatigue, and sore throat.

With the winter season in full swing, parents have plenty of questions: Where did the Omicron variant come from? What are the telltale symptoms? How will it affect children? Here's everything you need to know about this new, more transmissible strain of COVID-19.

An image of a mo putting a mask on her daughter.
Credit: Getty Images.

Where Did the Omicron Variant Come From?

Viruses tend to change as they spread throughout a community, and COVID-19 is no exception. "When a virus gets into the cells of a patient, it begins to make copies of itself," explains Kristina Deeter, M.D., pediatric intensivist and specialty medical officer for pediatric critical care medicine at Pediatrix Medical Group. "There can be 'mistakes' in the RNA copies that it makes of itself, and these new mutated copies can then be spread to other people." 

The Omicron variant is particularly concerning because it has an "unusually high number of mutations"—more than 30 in total, according to The New York Times. These mutations affect the spike protein, which causes infection by penetrating host cells. Experts believe these changes could make the virus more transmissible and affect vaccine response, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network and co-investigator on the vaccine trials.

Should I Be Concerned About the Omicron Variant? 

Omicron is causing new waves of COVID-19 infection around the world—particularly in places with low vaccination rates—so health organizations have been sounding the alarm. "Omicron has created concerns due to a large number of mutations it has when compared to the original Alpha strain, which may allow it to be even more contagious than previous strains," explains Dr. Deeter.  

Indeed, South Africa has seen more positive COVID-19 cases after detection of the Omicron variant. And the COVID-19 infection rate has substantially increased in America as well. In fact, the U.S. reported more than 1 million new daily cases on January 3 alone.  

Preliminary evidence has also suggested an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron; that's possibly because mutations to the spike protein help the virus evade antibodies.

We're still learning exactly how much the vaccines protect against the Omicron strain, and whether symptoms are more severe. But "so far, most of the patients that have been infected with the Omicron strain have been younger and have only experienced mild symptoms," says Dr. Deeter. 

What Are the Symptoms of the Omicron Variant?

Preliminary evidence suggests the Omicron variant often causes mild illness, with slightly different symptoms from other coronavirus strains. According to Dr. Parikh, patients have been "reporting no loss of smell or taste and some scratchy throat, but many other classic symptoms remain the same." 

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, has treated patients with body aches and pains, mild coughs, and slight headaches. Her patients also didn't experience a major drop in oxygen levels, and they recovered at home without complications, according to Reuters

A December 2016 study out of London reported that the five most common symptoms appear to be runny nose, headache, fever, fatigue, and sore throat.

Omicron seems to have a shorter incubation period compared with other variants; the CDC reports that symptoms show up about three days after transmission. Compare this with Delta and other strains, which have incubation periods of four days and five days, respectively.

Dr. Coetzee also mentioned that Omicron patients appear to be younger, which correlates with preliminary evidence around the world. Indeed, children are being diagnosed and hospitalized in record-breaking numbers in America, but experts say not to stress too much. It's possible that the increase in pediatric hospitalizations is due to lower vaccination rates in children or their immature immune systems. Worried parents could also be taking their children to the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Do Vaccines Protect Against the Omicron Variant? 

"Due to the structure of the new strain, there's concern that the vaccine may not be as effective," says Dr. Deeter. "We remain hopeful that the vaccine will continue to protect us against moderate to severe disease, but we may see more mild cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated individuals"—called breakthrough infections.

Booster shots have been shown to increase immune response. The CDC reports that two doses of an mRNA vaccine have 35 percent effectiveness against Omicron infection. The booster shot increases this effectiveness to about 75 percent.

Over time, as the virus continues to shift and mutate, our vaccination strategy might become less effective. "Our current vaccinations are directly focused on the spike protein architecture of the COVID-19 virus," says Dr. Deeter. "If the structure of the virus begins to change, as the Omicron variant has, then the concern is that our vaccinations may not be as effective in protecting the vaccinated population."

That said, vaccine manufacturers are confident they can tweak vaccines to better fight against the Omicron variant, if necessary, reports The New York Times

Medical organizations and health professionals recommend everyone 5 and up get vaccinated. You should also receive the COVID-19 booster shot if you're eligible. All available vaccines have been shown to protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death from the currently circulating COVID-19 strains. 

Another reason to roll up your sleeve: Low levels of vaccination can further advance the spread of future variants. "When a community is fully vaccinated, then the risk of infection goes down, and it is then less likely that these mutations will occur in a population," adds Dr. Deeter. 

Will Schools Close Again?

As COVID-19 cases ramp up around the country, parents are wondering if schools might close again. Indeed, some schools and daycares in New York City, New Jersey, Maryland, and other states have shut down due to recent outbreaks or "out of an abundance of caution." It's too soon to know what will happen, and as cases are projected to increase into the new year, it's possible that school districts might go temporarily virtual again.

The Bottom Line

While it's important to stay informed about the Omicron variant, parents shouldn't panic. "As with all other strains of COVID-19, unvaccinated people will remain at risk for moderate to severe infection, sometimes requiring hospitalization," says Dr. Deeter. "The best protection is to continue our known effective mitigation measures, like getting vaccinated if you're eligible, wearing a mask in public, avoiding people who are ill, and frequent hand-washing. We have no evidence at this point that any further measures are needed with this strain."