By Quentin Fottrell
Is the omicron variant a game changer?
It’s too early to tell, scientists say, but it’s a timely reminder to double down on social measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Two years into the pandemic, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus SARS-CoV-2, has killed 809,300 Americans. There is a daily average of 168,535 new cases in the U.S., up 38% over two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser gave a reassuring update on the highly contagious omicron this month, saying that boosters appear to improve defense against the variant, and it seems like a separate variant-specific vaccine is unlikely. “If you are unvaccinated, get vaccinated,” he told a White House briefing. “If you are fully vaccinated, get your booster shot.”
As the holiday season continues to gather momentum and people prepare to gather for Christmas, the Biden administration tightened travel measures, making it mandatory for international travelers arriving into the U.S. to have a 24-hour negative COVID-19 viral test. The federal mask mandate on public transport, and in airports and train stations, is extended through March 18.
But there are millions of vaccine holdouts. Just shy of 62% of the U.S. population —or nearly 205 million people — are vaccinated and 31.5% have received a booster shot. Research shows that Pfizer-BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +1.44% /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX -3.83% and Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -4.09% boosters offer more antibodies, but Johnson & Johnson JNJ boosters still improve immunity.
Unvaccinated Americans should take precautions for themselves, and for others. Vaccine holdouts should be aware that the virus is looking for ways to mutate and survive — one obvious route is through the unvaccinated. Unvaccinated are five times more likely to get COVID-19 compared with fully vaccinated 35-64 year-olds, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
1. Get tested before a family gathering
Some people are asking, “Should I visit family?” Whether you’re worried about the delta or omicron or both, COVID-19 does not rest because you deserve a night out. “ Small gathering guidance might be more appropriate for social gatherings that are more intimate with close friends and family, such as small holiday parties, family dinners, and small special celebrations,” according to the CDC.
Experts recommend testing on the day before visiting elderly parents. Prices for home testing kits typically range from $7 per test (or $14 for two) to $38.99 per test, according to KFF, a nonprofit that researches national health issues. Biden said they will be covered by health insurance, but paying for the upfront costs for these tests on a regular basis could be cost-prohibitive for many Americans.
President Joe Biden wants to make at-home COVID-19 testing kits widely available—and free — this winter as the Omicron variant emerges. “The bottom line: This winter, you will be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind,” Biden said last week , unveiling a plan that also includes tighter testing timelines for international travelers entering the country.
2. Wear a face mask and social distance
Keeping a distance of six feet or more in well-ventilated public spaces, while also wearing a mask, can also help prevent the spread of the virus. New research from scientists at the University of Cambridge, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, concluded that the six-feet rule is somewhat arbitrary, and there is no sudden drop-off point after six feet. The more space between individuals, the better.
“Even if I expel the same number of droplets every time I cough, because the flow is turbulent, there are fluctuations,” according to Epaminondas Mastorakos, a professor in the university’s Department of Engineering, who led the research . “If I’m coughing, fluctuations in velocity, temperature and humidity mean that the amount someone gets at the two-meter mark can be very different each time.”
Multiple studies have concluded that cloth face masks have helped reduce contagion by reducing droplets being sprayed into the air during flu season ; another Japanese-based study says this works when paired with vaccination. It may also be that they work in a certain amount of cases, and/or just wearing them also helps to promote social distancing, and other healthy behaviors.
This study also says N95 medical-grade masks do help filter viruses that are larger than 0.1 micrometers (One micrometer, um, is one millionth of a meter.) The coronavirus is 0.125 um. “These products can help block large droplets expelled by the wearer, but also have been shown to have efficacy at filtering smaller particles and are designed to fit tightly to the face,” it said.
3. High-risk and unvaccinated should be extra careful
Those who are at high risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19 should take care, especially with the emergence of the delta and omicron variants. That includes people who have respiratory illnesses such as asthma, COPD, emphysema and bronchitis; those with other immunocompromised illnesses such as HIV; people with diabetes and high blood pressure, and people over 60.
High-risk groups should definitely get a booster shot six months after their last shot, if they have already been vaccinated. In fact, before the Thanksgiving travel surge last month, the Biden administration decided to allow COVID-19 booster shots to all adults aged 18 or over, regardless of any underlying conditions, and singled out people 50 and older to get a booster shot.
Some people are steadfastly against vaccination: They don’t trust the CDC, or they hold out for religious, ideological or even political reasons. As one reader told MarketWatch about his parents: “They refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Even losing our uncle to COVID has done nothing to convince them. They’ve even said they’d rather quit their jobs and lose everything than get vaccinated!”