NEWS

Omicron Is Spreading Quickly. What Can We Expect in the New Year?

omicron holiday illo

Verywell Health / Danie Drankwalter

Key Takeaways

  • Preliminary data suggests that Omicron may be milder than other COVID-19 strains, but it isn’t confirmed if this is due to a lesser disease severity or a higher vaccinated population.
  • Even if the symptoms are milder, the variant is highly contagious and it will expand the base number of infected population and therefore hospitalizations, experts warn.
  • To slow the spread, experts urge vaccinations, masking, and regular testing.

In November, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron as a variant of concern and has continued to monitor its spread globally.

Less than a month later, Omicron's prevalence in the United States has grown exponentially—and experts don’t expect infection rates to drop anytime soon.

“We're getting close to where we were last year in late December. It's alarming,” George Jour, MD, an advisory board member and clinical consultant at Innovative Health Diagnostics, told Verywell. “The next three weeks to four weeks, essentially with the holidays, will be very crucial for the new year.”

Going into 2022, Jour urged people to practice safety measures like wearing masks, testing if sick or exposed, and seeking out vaccinations and boosters if eligible. These measures can help slow case rates and reduce pressure on healthcare settings, he added.

Just this week, Omicron became the dominant COVID-19 variant in the U.S. It's now responsible for 73.2% of U.S. COVID-19 cases—a steep climb from the late November levels at 0.1%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“It’s already going very fast. Previously, almost 100% used to be Delta. That's why we need to closely monitor the increase of the Omicron in the population here,” Pei-Yong Shi, PhD, chair in innovations in molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Verywell. 

Shi works in a lab that's studying Omicron’s transmissibility, severity, and sensitivity to vaccines. He noted that while hospitalization and death rates are increasing, they haven't spiked in the same way that case counts have.

Preliminary data in South Africa suggested that the Omicron variant has milder symptoms, although there's not enough data to determine the severity of Omicron just yet.

“Omicron, optimistically, might not cause disease as severe as the previous ones,” Shi said. “That's what we wish, and that's something we still remain to be very closely monitoring in patients."

He added that since the variant is highly contagious, it will dramatically increase the base number of infected individuals, and therefore increase the total number of hospitalizations.

Weaker Disease or Stronger Patients?

Some patients with Omicron have had mild infections, but this may not be the case for everyone. Experts say more research is needed to understand whether a person’s level of sickness is linked to the specific variant they are diagnosed with or their individual health and immunization status.

Jonathan Baktari, MD, CEO of e7health, expressed skepticism toward the idea that Omicron produces a mild infection. He said that factors like a younger patient base and a larger vaccinated population may have manipulated data to make the variant appear less severe. While this has not been proven, he urged caution and stressed the importance of protecting vulnerable populations.

Jour added that if people dismiss Omicron as a mild variant, case numbers may spin further out of control.

“Although it's not as virulent, the fact that it's very transmissible, and based on the preliminary data could put us at a risk of going up in the numbers of hospitalizations and mortality,” Jour said.

COVID-19 death rates in the U.S. sharply increased from late November to early December and have been rising slowly since, according to the CDC.

Over the last few months, experts have suggested the pandemic may eventually turn into an endemic, a flu-like situation where people learn to live with the virus long term with safety measures like recurring vaccinations.

Jour said Omicron has delayed an endemic by elongating the pandemic at hand.

“If Omicron did not happen, I would have said we would have been going in an endemic route with COVID,” Jour said. “But now with the surge of Omicron, I don't think we are going toward an endemic. Hopefully we'll be able to at least stabilize the number of positive cases.”

But Baktari disagreed, saying that if an endemic is our endpoint, we’re already there.

“People have to come to grips that this is no longer a pandemic, it's endemic,” Baktari said. “The COVID-19 virus is going to be with us.”

Will Omicron Affect COVID-19 Test Capabilities?

Similar to how certain mutations can weaken vaccine efficacies, they may also evade a test’s detection.

Omicron’s spike protein mutations have affected some tests' ability to pick up the variant’s S gene (spike protein gene) or N gene (another gene commonly targeted by COVID-19 tests), Jour said. That isn’t too concerning because most tests can target multiple genes in the virus, he added.

Still, COVID-19 test that can only examine the S gene or N gene may be unable to detect the Omicron variant.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has located three tests that are unable to detect the Omicron variant. These tests are:

  • Meridian Bioscience, Inc’s Revogene SARS-CoV-2
  • Tide Laboratories, LLC’s DTPM COVID-19 RT-PCR test
  • Applied DNA Sciences’s Linea COVID-19 Assay Kit.

What to Expect and How to Stay Safe This Winter

Experts agree that vaccinations remain the first line of defense against all variants fo COVID-19. They also stress the importance of back-up defenses like masking and viral testing.

When it comes to priority, vaccinations come first, followed by mask use, and then testing, Jour said. He added that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should wear masks in public settings, both indoors and outdoors.

Still, not all families want to wear masks together over the holidays. In these scenarios, it's important to evaluate risk levels and vaccination status case-by-case, Jour said.

Taking COVID-19 tests before and after a holiday visit can also serve as precautionary steps to alert people if they have been infected and need to quarantine. Although rapid tests are convenient, PCR tests can provide more accurate results, he added.

Shi expects Omicron cases will continue to rise through the new year. Hopefully, vaccinations and booster shots can stunt the variant’s growth, he added.

“The immunity background is very different,” Shi said. “Previously, when Alpha was coming along, even the Delta ramp-up, the vaccination rate was different. So there are a lot of dynamics, parameters that affect the ramp-up speed of a new variant. And now, Omicron is in a very different population with different immune backgrounds.”

Jour added that a more realistic goal would be reaching a plateau level for new cases in the next few weeks.

“I'm hopeful,” Jour said. “Everyone of us has seen someone in their entourage exposed to, or personally has been in contact with the virus. So this should be in many ways an opportunity for us to try to not repeat what we saw before.”

What This Means For You

The Omicron variant is now the dominant variant in the United States, and experts say multiple disease prevention measures are needed to slow its spread. Going into the new year, they encourage vaccinations, boosters, masking, and testing if exposed, if traveling, or if visiting vulnerable people.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Variant Proportions.

  2. Ledford H. How severe are Omicron infectionsNature. 2021;600(7890):577-578. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-03794-8

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. SARS-CoV-2 Viral Mutations: Impact on COVID-19 Tests.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a Philly-based reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.