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Virus Expert Just Issued New Omicron Warning

"It's still causing a significant amount of severe disease."
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

"We all, right now, have lots of questions" about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, said virus expert Dr. Michael Osterholm on the latest episode of his podcast. To name a few: "Testing, isolation, quarantine, schools, work, and is Omicron really that bad? Would we be better off just to let it run rampant and get through it?" The answer to the latter question is no, said the renowned epidemiologist, and he explained why Omicron's sudden omnipresence doesn't mean you should underestimate it today. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

Don't "Underestimate" Omicron

Doctor analyzing patient blood and nasal swab testing sample for new covid-19 mutation.
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Omicron is highly contagious, and experts have said that almost everyone will be infected. So that presents another question: "What does it mean in terms of coming to an endemic part of the pandemic?" said Osterholm.

For now, it's time to back-burner that question. "For the next three to four weeks, we can't take our eye off of what is actually happening to us," he said. "This is far more than just people getting sick, being hospitalized, and even dying. This is having an impact on our society that is actually much more akin to what was anticipated if we'd had a massive influenza pandemic."

He added: "The last thing I'd do is underestimate this virus. And I still have a lot of questions about how Omicron will fully play out in places all throughout the United States."

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2

Omicron Seems Less Severe, But Transmissibility a "Huge Concern"

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"The data I'm continuing to see from places hit by Omicron surges have supported the notion that the rates of severe disease appear to be lower than the rates we've seen with previous variants like Delta," said Osterholm. 

However: "Don't misinterpret this as me saying it's somehow benign," he added. "It is not. It's still causing a significant amount of severe disease, which is challenging hospitals, in some cases leading to an increased number of deaths. And its transmissibility makes it a huge concern, since it could offset or drown out this reduction in severity." How so? Read on.

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3

Omicron Is Not Mild for Everyone—or the Hospital System

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Osterholm warned that the Omicron surge could overburden the hospital system.Nearly one in four hospitals are already reporting critical staffing shortages, he said.

"The CDC estimated that there could be as many as 62,000 deaths in the next four weeks in this country. That is an incredible number. When we talk about Omicron being milder, it's hard to associate that with a number as large as 62,000 deaths. So don't be confused that when most people who are infected, who are vaccinated, have a cold-like illness, that that means that it's a mild illness for everyone. It is not." 

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4

But Make No Mistake: Vaccines Work

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"If you're concerned that for whatever reason, the vaccines we have in this country don't work as well as they do in other parts of the world, I can assure you that that's not the case," said Osterholm. "In fact, if you look at the latest data from New York State, which runs through Dec. 7, unvaccinated individuals were seven times more likely to test positive and 12-and-a-half times more likely to be admitted to the hospital with COVID than fully vaccinated individuals." 

He added: "I am convinced this virus will find you if you are not protected."

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5

How to Stay Safe Out There

A mid adult woman protects herself by placing an N95 face mask over her nose and mouth.
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Follow the fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 or KN95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Alek Korab
Alek Korab is a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the ETNT Health channel on Eat This, Not That! Read more
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