The pandemic has dragged on for nearly two years now, and we’ve seen a number of troubling developments, the most recent of which is the detection of a new variant of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. Omicron has been designated as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, and the first case in the United States was confirmed on Wednesday.
Omicron is worrying — there’s not much known about transmission, severity or vaccine efficacy. So what do we do now?
In a sense, what we’ve been doing. Masks and vaccinations, along with social distancing, continue to be the most effective ways to prevent infection, and maintaining diligence with these measures will be crucial in handling Omicron. Variants like these often develop in unvaccinated individuals, and spread to vaccinated populations. WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan has stated she believes current vaccines will be effective against Omicron, a sentiment echoed by vaccine manufacturers. Getting vaccinated is still your best shot at avoiding COVID, and helps protect vulnerable people in your community.
Recently, the CDC has begun recommending boosters shots for everyone 18 and older. If your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or your first dose of Johnson & Johnson, was administered at least six months ago, schedule a booster shot soon. Your booster shot does not need to be from the same manufacturer as your original vaccine.
As of now, WHO has not recommended mass shutdowns or blanket travel bans, citing the extreme effects these measures have on people’s livelihoods. However, people at high risk for infection or serious illness should limit travel when possible, and everyone traveling should test frequently.
Omicron has also raised larger concerns about equitable distribution of COVID vaccines and treatments — the pandemic has disproportionately affected marginalized, low-income people, but these people are often the last to be immunized or treated, especially in the global south.
It is disheartening to hear of a new variant in what seems like an endless barrage of mutations and bad news. However, there’s good news. We have the tools to beat this variant. We just need to use them! If you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated. Mask up. Wash your hands! These simple steps will be crucial in keeping our campus community, as well as broader Madison, safe.