Medical Examiner

What You Can Actually Do About Omicron

This isn’t March 2020. We have tools.

A person seen from the back scratching their head in front of a giant coronavirus
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by diane39/Getty Images Plus and CDC/Unsplash.

Omicron is here. Really here. Wildfire isn’t quite an apt analogy. It’s more like the shockwave of an explosion. The rate of spread is unlike anything scientists have seen before—in the U.K., cases are doubling every 1.5 days.

Exponential growth is hard to wrap your head around, so here’s some perspective: If there are 5,000 omicron cases in the U.S. right now—a real possibility—by Christmas there will have been 320,000 cases. By New Year’s Day there will have been 5.1 million. Three days later, 20.4 million. That’s just using a simplistic formula, but you get the idea.

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I have to say I am not canceling my Christmas plans (a fact that is liable to shift if there’s new travel guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Family contact at this point in the pandemic isn’t a luxury, it’s a need, and for many, this is the only time of the year they can get enough time off work to see family. I have a 3-year-old, and his grandparents have already missed so much of his babyhood thanks to the pandemic. I feel comfortable in this choice because as a vaccinated and healthy person, I’m just not at very great risk of severe disease from omicron.

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What’s important to remember right now is that this isn’t a rewind to 2020. Though you might need to think through some things carefully, and rethink things that would be taking place right before travel, you don’t have to cancel all your plans. Now, there are tools you can use to make yourself, your family, and your community safer—without locking down. It might seem like the festivities are approaching too quickly to do anything meaningful, but with a variant growing at this clip, acting today can still make a difference.

Get a Booster—or Convince a Family Member To

The evidence that boosters help against omicron is growing stronger by the day. A preliminary study from South Africa found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are now only 33 percent effective at preventing symptomatic omicron infections (compared with about 80 percent in the delta era). A booster may bump that protection back up to near 70 percent—in part because the third shot doesn’t just “boost” your antibody response, but also stimulates your immune system into making new iterations of antibodies that help wrestle omicron into submission. Yes, two doses still help against severe outcomes—thanks to immunological memory—but reducing your chances of even a mild breakthrough case is important because vaccinated people can still spread the virus, and getting long COVID from a mild case is a possibility. Besides, who wants to be sick anyway?

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You might assume that if you haven’t received a booster by now, it’s too late to do anything in time for the holidays, so why deal with the potential side effects? We all have in mind the “two-week” period as the time for the vaccine to fully kick in. This both is and isn’t true. Yes, immunity takes time to kick in—but it’s not like a magical switch is flipped at day 14. And with boosters, that may be even less so, with some benefits accruing in as little as a few days. Even if you can’t get boosted ASAP, the sooner you do it, the better protected you’ll be in January, when everyone is returning from their holiday gatherings (and, potentially, with the virus in tow).

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Despite these benefits, booster messaging has been muddy, and many people have pushed off the third jab. And while you may be following every twist and turn of the news, not everyone is: About 70 percent of vaccinated adults have yet to receive a booster. It might be worth a few phone calls now to ensure your family isn’t among them. Or you can even offer to help get them to the appointment yourself.

Get a Better Mask for Travel

The days when a bandana counts as a face mask are long over, and in fact, it may be high time to ditch the surgical and basic cloth masks. While experts emphasize that these offer some protection, especially when used widely, you can feel that air flowing out the sides when you breathe, can’t you?

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Stock up on respirators such as N95s, and make sure the mask fits well. N95s and similar respirators are far better at blocking the virus—both for the wearer and for those around you. The nonprofit Project N95 vets face coverings to make sure they aren’t counterfeit, and some can be shipped immediately. If you can’t score one, double up your masks (or consider a mask fitter—a kind of heinous device that greatly improves the fit and effectiveness of a basic surgical mask). I know, it sucks.

Use Rapid Tests Just Before Gathering if You Can Find (and Afford) Them

It’s a crime that at-home rapid test kits cost $24 a pop and are difficult to find (and it’s also a crime that the government’s plan to make insurers reimburse for them doesn’t start until mid-January). But they are useful for determining if someone is currently infectious—which is what you want to know before sitting down at the dinner table. If you can, take more than one test in the lead-up to a gathering; they’re sold in two-packs for a reason, and they have a surprisingly high, if imperfect, chance of catching someone who’s infectious. It’s important to do the second swab just before the gathering, as results can change surprisingly fast. You could have a negative result in the morning and be infectious by afternoon. If you’re new to rapid testing, here’s an excellent video explainer on how they work.

Come Up With an Isolation Plan

You might catch the virus no matter what precautions you take, and that’s not a moral failing. The good news is that for the vaccinated (and especially boosted), the case will likely be mild. But it’s best to prevent spread by coming up with a plan to hole up for a bit. Because it can be difficult to separate COVID symptoms from those of other circulating viruses, if you feel anything—fever, cough, sore throat—get tested. Over Thanksgiving, a friend of mine thought he was having allergies, but a rapid test revealed he had COVID. He isolated quickly, and no one else in his family—including his medically vulnerable father—caught the virus. Thankfully, expert thinking on isolation protocols for the vaccinated is slowly changing: So long as you’ve had your shots, test negative, and aren’t showing symptoms, it’s probably safe to emerge in about five days.

Get Involved

Despite how easy it might be for you to walk into Walgreens and get a vaccine, there are still millions of people who struggle for access in America, and billions worldwide. If you have the time or money, you can volunteer with a local organization to help people find and schedule appointments, or donate to global vaccine equity initiatives. There’s no way around the fact that COVID is a collective problem. Even the low-risk among us have spent so much time in various forms of lockdown because of this fact, often becoming all too focused and hyperanxious about our personal risk, when what matters most about public health precautions is that they are for the good of the group. As we go into this next phase of the pandemic, in which the fortunate among us are vaxxed, N95-clad, and able to rapid test frequently, it might be worth asking not how you can lower your own risk further by shutting yourself in, but what you can do to get other people some of the same support that you have.

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