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Virus Experts Say Most People Catch Omicron This Way Now

It's still important to try and avoid catching the virus.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

COVID-19 cases are declining as last month's Omicron wave recedes, and mask mandates are being relaxed almost everywhere. But experts say it's still important to try and avoid catching the virus for two main reasons: Even if you have only mild symptoms (or none at all), you can spread COVID to a person who's at risk of severe illness; and even mild illness can result in a debilitating case of "long COVID" (although vaccination is believed to reduce that risk). To protect yourself and others, experts say you may want to avoid these scenarios, which are how most people contract Omicron now. 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.


Thinking You Had Omicron, So You're Immune Now


Unfortunately, new research has found that catching the Omicron variant doesn't make you immune from COVID-19—and not even from another case of Omicron. Those are the conclusions of researchers at the University of California—San Francisco, who found that Omicron infection only provided one-third the immune protection of a booster shot. That makes people susceptible to a newly emerging subtype of Omicron known as BA.2, not to mention future variants.

"Our results suggest that omicron-induced immunity may not be sufficient to prevent infection from another, more pathogenic variant, should it emerge in the future," the researchers said. "They also highlight the continued importance of vaccine boosters in enhancing immunity, as breakthrough infection alone may not be reliable."


Being Unvaccinated or Unboosted

Female doctor or nurse trying to give shot or vaccine against virus to a scared patient. Angry and distrustful patient refuses to receive it.

On a recent episode of his podcast, epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm said the latest data indicates that people who received a third vaccine dose were nearly four times less likely to test positive for COVID compared to unvaccinated adults. (And they're 97 times less likely to die from the virus.)

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Being Unmasked in Crowded Public Places

Young sick student teenager woman outside at bus stop is sneezing into the elbow by an allergy or cold. Scared woman in protective mask afraid cough woman outdoor

As mask mandates ease nationwide, the debate has begun about whether such relaxation is premature. Experts are looking with concern at the emergence of the BA.2 subtype of Omicron, which only accounts for 1% of current U.S. cases but seems to be about 30% more infectious than Omicron (which was already much more infectious than earlier iterations of the virus). 

The CDC still recommends wearing a mask in public in areas where there is substantial or high community transmission of the virus. CDC director Rochelle Walensky said Americans should consider another standard in their local area when deciding whether to mask in public. "We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer," she said. "We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen."

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Being in the Hospital

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Last week, Politico reported that a record number of people contracted COVID-19 in the hospital during the Omicron surge: 38 out of the 40 worst daily hospital infection rates during the pandemic occurred this year. "Any level of hospital transmission is concerning," said Aaron Milstone, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The data suggests that hospitals should review their practices and make sure they are doing everything they can to protect patients."

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How to Stay Safe Out There

Brunette woman wearing a KN95 FPP2 mask.

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 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.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael