By now, you’ve probably heard of Omicron. You may even know someone who got infected with Omicron, or possibly even caught this COVID-19 variant yourself. And while questions remain about this new strain, medical experts are learning more about it each and every day.

Here’s what you need to know about the infectious new coronavirus variant:

Why has COVID-19 mutated into new variants?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), just like with other viruses, the virus that causes COVID-19 (a.k.a. SARS CoV-2) will continue to mutate as COVID-19 continues to spread.
“Viruses mutate when they replicate,” explains STChealth’s Chief Epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Kyle Freese, PhD, MPH. “As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads around the world and within communities and individuals, every replication gives the virus an opportunity to mutate.”
The best way to halt the spread of COVID-19 and its variants is to stop the spread of coronavirus altogether through things like vaccinating, mask wearing, good hygiene and social distancing when needed.

How infectious is Omicron and how does it spread?
No virus is created equal, and, according to WHO: “The Omicron variant has a large number of mutations which may mean the virus acts differently from other variants that are circulating.”
“Observational data suggest that Omicron is significantly more infectious (i.e., has a higher attack rate) compared with previous variants,” adds Dr. Freese. “As far as we know, the mode of transmission is the same as previous variants.”

What are the symptoms that Omicron causes?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Omicron tends to cause less severe disease and symptoms than infection from previous variants.
The CDC also says that “Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant.”
Although preliminary data suggests Omicron may cause milder disease than previous COVID-19 variants, it is still possible that Omicron can cause severe disease, hospitalization and even death. Due to the widespread nature of the Omicron variant, even if only a small percentage of those infected with the variant need hospitalization, it is still possible for this to overwhelm the current healthcare system.

What are breakthrough infections?
“This term refers to an infection that occurs in a person vaccinated against COVID-19,” says Dr. Freese. “The term is slightly misleading though, particularly with Omicron, because this variant appears to be able to evade the immune system with more efficiency than previous variants.”

How do you treat Omicron?
According to the CDC: “Scientists are working to determine how well existing treatments for COVID-19 work. Some, but not all, monoclonal antibody treatments remain effective against Omicron. Public health agencies work with healthcare providers to ensure that effective treatments are used appropriately to treat patients.”
For more information on treating COVID-19, click here.

How do I prevent getting Omicron in the first place?
Doctors, health agencies, medical experts and epidemiologists alike agree that vaccination against COVID-19—including booster shots—are the best tool that we have at our disposal to win the fight against COVID-19.
“As with previous variants, vaccination is the most powerful tool we have in protecting us against COVID-19, most specifically severe disease and death,” says Dr. Freese.
Other preventative measures like wearing masks, practicing good hygiene and staying home when you’re sick or isolating yourself when you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 help as well.

I had/have COVID-19. How do I know if I got the Omicron variant?
“A laboratory would perform serologic testing on a collected sample to determine whether an infection is due to the Omicron variant versus some other variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” explains Dr. Freese. “However, recent data suggest that upwards of 95% of new infections in the U.S. are due to the Omicron variant.”

Key Takeaways
Although the data suggests that Omicron is more highly contagious than previous COVID-19 variants, we have the tools to fight this mutation of SARS-CoV-2 and to stay safe:
• Vaccinations, including booster shots.
• Testing when you have COVID-19 symptoms—as well as if you have been exposed to COVID-19. For more information about when to test for COVID-19 and the types of tests available, click here.
• Masks. According to the CDC, well-fitting masks offer protection against all variants of COVID-19. The best rule of thumb when it comes to masks is to wear a mask with the best fit, protection and comfort for you.