The Unknowns of Omicron: New COVID Variant Brings More Questions Than Answers for Now

A rendering of the omicron variant of COVID-19. (Source: Pixabay)

There’s a lot more we don’t know about the new omicron variant of COVID-19 than what we do know.

Dr. Suzanne Judd, a professor and epidemiologist at the UAB School of Public Health, told reporters in a Tuesday morning online conference that the variant first discovered in South Africa is spreading rapidly in that region, but there are many unanswered questions about how severe the symptoms might be for those infected.

“The truth of it is, we just don’t know enough about it. We have things that we think about the omicron variant based on what is coming out of South Africa,” Judd said. “We think it spreads more rapidly than delta. This is based on the fact that South Africa is having a huge surge in cases of COVID, despite the fact that they already battled a delta wave almost at the same time that Alabama (did).

“We think it may be less virulent, which means it may be less severe, less likely to put people in the hospital, but still spreading quite rapidly.”

The omicron variant was first identified about four weeks ago, and at the time it was confined to South Africa and neighboring Botswana. Since then, it has showed up in much of Europe, and in the past week omicron has been found in about a third of the states in the U.S.

Alabama has no reported omicron cases so far, though Judd said there probably are some cases scattered throughout the state. It may take a while longer to find them because health care agencies in the state do less genotyping than other states, she said.

When the new variant is discovered, it could spread as quickly as it did in South Africa, where new case numbers went from about 300 per day to nearly 15,000 in a short timeframe.

One worrisome trend in South Africa is a sharp spike in pediatric cases, particularly in children under age 5, Judd said.

“They’re seeing higher rates of hospitalizations in the youngest of young children. Again, we don’t know what that means. It could be because this is so rapidly spreading, it could be because of the time of year. There are many factors, but we think that could be something going on.”

In the United States, there are still no vaccines approved for administering to children under age 5.

Expecting More Deaths Than Births in Alabama – Again

Despite what Greek letter is in use, there’s still one common thread. “It’s still COVID,” Judd said. “And last year, for the first time in recorded history, there were more deaths than births in the state of Alabama. We’re on pace for the exact same thing to happen in 2021.

“We know this particular virus is more dangerous than previous viruses that we’ve seen. That doesn’t change, even if omicron is a little more safe and less likely to put you in the hospital. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way, and we know it’s likely to come to the Southeast.”

Even as omicron waits on the horizon, the delta variant is still prevalent throughout the United States. In Alabama, the delta surge has receded nearly to levels experienced in August, though new-case numbers since the Thanksgiving period have begun to inch back upward. The 7-day moving average of new cases has almost doubled from 283 daily cases on Nov. 30 to 521.14 on Tuesday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Judd is also concerned about spikes in delta-variant cases making their way southward from the Ohio River Valley states of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky in recent weeks. Tennessee is also seeing new case numbers rise sharply.

“The thing that makes me nervous is the fact that Kentucky and Tennessee are starting to see spikes again. Typically you see this geographic pattern. You can actually watch the virus as it moves from one county to the next,” Judd said. “Northern Alabama is starting to see higher rates than Southern Alabama.”

Dr. Suzanne Judd, a professor and epidemiologist at the UAB School of Public Health. (Source: UAB livestream)

According to a map by the Mayo Clinic of per-capita COVID case rates by state, Alabama is one of the lowest three states in cases per 100,000 residents at the moment, alongside Georgia and Florida. Tennessee’s rate is triple that of Alabama, while Kentucky has double the rate of Tennessee and more than six times that of Alabama.

“It looks like delta is marching its way right back down to the Southeast,” Judd said. “In terms of the real issue in the United States, it’s still delta, and the vaccine works really well to prevent the spread.”

For now, Judd says people should so the same things to keep omicron at bay as they have with delta and the original alpha variant: vaccinate, wear masks in public and use caution in spaces where crowds may gather, particularly as the Christmas holiday period draws near.

Judd said masking is a good way to protect yourself and those around you when you’re out in public spaces. “Social distancing … also helps to decrease your risk. And take precautions. If you feel symptomatic, you may want to get a COVID test,” she said.

The high case incidence among children in South Africa means that schools here in the States need to prepare for omicron. “Schools … are going to have to watch really carefully what’s happening,” Judd said, citing early indications from a study in Norway where high school students gathered for an event, and 70% of those students later tested positive for COVID.

“Limiting gathering sizes right now at schools could help to protect families as they get together over the holidays,” Judd said.

As for the likelihood of another surge during the holidays and into January, such as what happened a year ago, Judd said it’s too early to tell as there’s not enough data to form a model, but that data should come over the next three weeks.