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The Latest on Omicron: What to Know About the New COVID-19 Variant

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By now you may know someone—if not several people—with omicron, the latest and fastest spreading strain of COVID-19.

First detected Nov. 9, it quickly invaded 85 countries worldwide and was by December the dominant strain in Houston and the United States.

About three of four U.S. COVID-19 cases stem from omicron. Its virulence has led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts to change rules on boosters, isolation and mask-wearing.

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your family:

Omicron: The variant is a super-spreader, multiplying 70 times faster in the respiratory tract than delta did, reports a University of Hong Kong study. It also can linger in the air inside rooms from minutes to hours.

Boosters: All people 12 and above should get third shots of Pfizer-BioNTech SE or 16 and above for Moderna vaccines, which have been shown to be more effective than Johnson & Johnson against omicron. If you started with J&J, you can change to the other two vaccines for your second or third shot.

Two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine were highly effective against previous COVID-19 variants, but omicron is trickier. Research shows that two doses are 35 percent effective, but a booster hikes success to 75 percent, the CDC reports.

Coronavirus vaccines greatly slash the danger of drastic disease, hospitalization and death. Everyone ages 5 and up can get inoculated, and those 16 and up are eligible for boosters.

Masks: Not all face covers are equal. Gaiters and bandanas leave too much exposure, and many infectious disease experts believe cloth masks aren’t sufficient against omicron.

Face coverings must be snug and cover the nose, mouth and chin to be of any benefit. Gaps can let air with respiratory droplets leak in and out around the edges of the mask.

Check the sides of masks to ensure they’re close to the skin. Ideally you should feel warm air come through the mask’s front, and you may be able to see the mask move in and out with each breath.

The CDC calls for masks with layers—some health professionals suggest three layers—to keep your respiratory droplets in and others’ out. A mask with a nose wire—a metal strip along the top—fits better. You can bend the wire to keep the mask in place and keep viral droplets out.

You also can use a mask fitter or brace over a disposable multilayer mask to help thwart air leakage around the edges. This is especially important for men with beards. The CDC offers other tips.

Infection disease experts say that the best protection comes from N95, K95 or surgical-grade masks. These are made of a high-filtration material with an electrostatic charge that more effectively hinders virus particles from being inhaled.

The CDC offers tips on avoiding counterfeit masks.

Tests: There’s some debate whether over-the-counter tests reveal omicron. In any case, you can be contagious before the virus announces its presence.

Those who are vaccinated may have mild symptoms of the flu, suggesting they might have COVID-19. Signs can include fever, fatigue, cough, congestion, body aches or runny nose.

If you are unvaccinated, you’re more vulnerable to severe disease, hospitalization and death.

If you’ve been exposed, wait 5 to 7 days to test, the CDC says. Earlier tests may give false negative results.

Rapid tests aren’t as sensitive as PCR tests. The latter look for signs of COVID-19 in the nose, throat and respiratory tract. They are less likely than rapid tests to say you’re no longer infectious when you still are.

If you want to be tested, click here. Going to a medical center saves you running to multiple pharmacies that may have sold out of tests. It also protects others whom you may expose while searching fruitlessly.

Exposure: The CDC has shortened and fine-tuned quarantine guidelines for those with COVID-19, based on research of omicron.

People known to have COVID-19 should isolate themselves for 5 days—if asymptomatic—followed by wearing a mask when around others for an additional five days. That means wearing a well-fitted mask that covers your nose, mouth and chin, leaving no gaps.

Any person who is unvaccinated, has not had their booster (third shot) or has not had their second mRNA dose in the past 6 months or J&J vaccine in the past 2 months should quarantine for 5 days after ANY exposure to COVID-19. They then should adopt strict use of a well-fitted mask for another 5 days.

Those who have had their booster shot do not need to quarantine following exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days after exposure.

If you have a fever or symptoms, isolate until you’re able to identify the cause. If it ends up being COVID-19, quarantine for 5 days.

Isolating yourself at home is challenging, we know. Few of us have bathrooms and bedrooms we can devote solely to sick family members. But do your best to keep others safe. Consider having the entire family stay home in case others in your home are contagious, despite no symptoms.

Vaccines: If you haven’t been vaccinated, protect yourself and others. Get inoculated. It’s safe and, like flu, mumps, smallpox and other vaccines, is the best chance for our nation to shrink COVID-19, as vaccines have been effective against other once-deadly viruses.

Learn more here.

The information in this article is accurate as of January 6, 2022. It was clinically reviewed by Binita Patel.

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