Omicron is spreading ‘every place at once’, experts say. What it can mean for vacation plans.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The omicron variant of COVID-19 moves faster than surveillance systems can detect it, and has so troubled some medical experts that they have begun to put the brakes on the preparations for their holiday gatherings.

“Personally, I’re reevaluating the plans for the holiday,” Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogenic genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “It’s the responsible thing to do and what feels right given the risk.”

She and a handful of other Massachusetts-based researchers on the call said they have been amazed at the pace at which omicron has displaced other variants and taken over the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 3% of current COVID-19 cases in the United States are omicron. But MacInnis said she thinks that figure was probably an underestimation on December 11 – just three days ago – when the CDC first said it, and now it’s probably much higher.

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“With the speed at which it appears to be spreading, there is no surveillance system on the planet that could really keep up with it,” MacInnis said.

In some parts of the country, there are indications that omicron already accounts for about 15% of cases, said Jeremy Luban, a virus expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Omicron has moved “faster, even than the most pessimistic among us thought it would move,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s very likely it will come to your holiday gathering..”

COVID-19 omicron variants.

While earlier variants appeared in one country and then another, “you can see it unfold from place to place to place,” said Lemieux, omicron “seems to happen every place at once.”

Lemieux said he was particularly concerned because the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, has already killed more than 5.3 million people around the world. 800,000 in the United States.

Although the variant was first identified the day before Thanksgiving, as more data emerges, it confirms the omicron’s ability to spread incredibly fast – probably twice as fast as the delta, which has dominated the global pandemic since last summer.

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Although omicron is less dangerous, it will still cause a large number of infections and therefore a large number of hospitalizations and deaths, Lemieux said.

Plus, the United States already saw an increasing number of infections, mainly with the delta variant. There was an average of 118,000 new infections per day during the last week – an increase of 37% compared to the previous week.

“Our hospitals are already filling up. The staff is tired,” Lemieux said. “We’re almost two years into the pandemic, and there may be limits to the capacity to deal with the kind of case loads we see from an omicron wave superimposed on top of the delta wave.”

Cases of omicron have skyrocketed in South Africa since the variant was first identified last month. Omicron already accounts for as many cases as when the delta reached its peak there, about two months after arrival.

A security guard is in place outside a ward preparing for the omicron coronavirus variant at the civilian hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Monday, December 6, 2021.

A security guard is in place outside a ward preparing for the omicron coronavirus variant at the civilian hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Monday, December 6, 2021.

Early data from South Africa’s largest private health insurance company, Discovery Health, suggests that vaccines and previous infections are less protective against omicron than they have been with previous variants, although they can still prevent serious illness.

Hospitalization rates are still lower with omicron than with previous waves, and patients are less likely to require ventilation, although it is not clear whether this is due to the new variant, because it is less dangerous, or because previous infections and vaccinations protection. said MacInnis and the others. About 16% of South Africans hospitalized with COVID-19 have been vaccinated.

For these reasons, the researchers said on Tuesday’s call that they were reconsidering gathering for Christmas.

“It’s time to step back and reconsider,” said Dr. Amy Barczak, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“My family has changed our plans so that we will no longer meet with particularly vulnerable members of the family during the holidays, as we had planned to do,” she said.

People who have been the most vulnerable throughout the pandemic – senior citizens, those with compromised immune systems and / or people who have other health conditions such as diabetes – will remain most vulnerable to omicron, she said.

Asked if quick home tests before gatherings could reduce some of the risk, MacInnis said it was “tricky” because it is not yet known how sensitive the tests are to the omicron variant.

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Lemieux said that if a group is certainly assembled, quick tests at home could be useful as a risk-reducing strategy, but he called for caution.

“I think it’s time to reconsider whether a gathering is necessary and whether large gatherings are necessary,” he said.

If people are embarking on a gathering, they should “do everything you can to carry it out as safely as possible,” Lemieux said, meaning staying outdoors as much as possible, ventilating indoor spaces by opening windows and masking , when indoors.

Flying, Luban and others said, remains relatively safe due to masking, vaccination requirements and good air filtration. Travel restrictions are not working, experts said on the call, because the virus has already spread across the globe.

They also all supported the idea of ​​booster shots, which apparently can restore protection that may have disappeared over time. The fact that fewer people die in South Africa from omicron than previous variants suggests that vaccines, although they do not prevent all infections, can stop the most serious cases.

The rise in omicron, MacInnis said, “does not mean our vaccines are failing us.”

Contact Elizabeth Weise at [email protected] and Karen Weintraub at [email protected]

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The COVID variant worries some experts: ‘Happens every place at once’

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