Will omicron become the alpha COVID-19 variant over delta? Suburban doctors answer questions

  • Getting vaccinated is one key way to stay healthy as the omicron variant emerges in Illinois. Experts explain what we know so far.

    Getting vaccinated is one key way to stay healthy as the omicron variant emerges in Illinois. Experts explain what we know so far. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 12/9/2021 6:17 AM

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, many Illinoisans are overly familiar with the unpleasantly contagious delta variant that is causing most virus infections in the U.S.

But what about the latest mutation of COVID-19, the omicron variant that emerged Tuesday in Illinois when a Chicagoan was diagnosed? Will omicron push delta aside to become the predominant variant in the nation?

 

"Look three months from now and see. It will be very telling," Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital Medical Director Michael Bauer said Wednesday. "Right now, delta still has the upper hand."

So far, omicron is offering good-news, bad-news scenarios as scientists rush to collect and analyze data after it was detected in southern Africa last month.

On the negative side, "it appears that in certain studies (omicron) may be two to three times more transmissible (than delta)," said Dr. Gregory Huhn, Cook County Health infectious disease physician.

On the positive end, "we have information (Wednesday) released from Pfizer Inc. showing that their booster dose will likely protect us to a degree where we would avert severe disease and hospitalization against omicron," Huhn said.

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Here are answers to other omicron concerns.

Q: How severe can omicron infections get?

A: Data from South Africa reflects a younger demographic than that in the United States, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, Huhn noted. However, "it does appear omicron is not causing as severe illness as we've seen with delta."

Q: How much protection do current COVID-19 vaccines offer against omicron?

A: Tests are ongoing and results may be available next week, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said at a White House briefing Tuesday. At that point, "we'll be able to determine whether or not antibodies induced by our vaccines lose their capability of effectiveness with omicron," he said.

Q: What should we do to keep healthy?

A: Get vaccinated, Huhn advised. In addition, he recommended "wearing masks and social distancing in crowded indoor spaces, and in outdoor spaces with crowds of unknown vaccination status, and hand hygiene -- the whole package."

Bauer explained that "immunity wanes particularly starting at the six months standpoint. There's no question that getting your booster is going to be extremely important both for delta and to help enhance the protection against omicron."

Q: Will vaccines protect children and teenagers against omicron?

A: "We just don't know that yet," said Bauer, a pediatrician. Children ages 5 through 11 were only recently authorized for Pfizer's two-dose vaccine. Older kids 12 through 15 were allowed to be vaccinated in May, but "unless they have an underlying condition, they're not eligible for a booster yet and that's in part because they develop such a nice, robust, immune response," Bauer said. "Time will tell." Overall, boosters are approved only for people 18 and older.

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