COVID-19 Variants

Omicron Variant 

Photo of microscope

Omicron is a COVID-19 variant that is the dominant strain throughout the nation and in Colorado.

Vaccinations are recommended for those 6 months and older and boosters are recommended for those 5 years and older. An updated booster, called a bivalent booster, designed to offer protection from the original COVID-19 virus and the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, is now available for all vaccinated people aged 12 and older. For more information, click here and here.

There are different lineages of Omicron. What does that mean and is it concerning?

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) continuously evolve as changes in the genetic code occur. A lineage is a genetically closely related group of virus variants derived from a common ancestor, in this case the original Omicron variant.

The Omicron subvariants of COVID-19, BA.4 and BA.5, now make up 80 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with BA.5 accounting for a majority of cases.

BA.5 is the most easily spread strain to date. BA.5 causes the same set of symptoms as past variants and lineages and is believed to cause less severe illness in most people compared to past variants, although it is still capable of causing severe illness in some.

Am I more likely to catch BA.5?

So far, scientists report BA.5 may be better than other variants and subvariants at infecting people who have already had COVID-19 or have been vaccinated.

Are vaccines effective against BA.5?

Getting all recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, loved ones, and the community from omicron (including BA.5) and other variants. The updated COVID-19 booster is made with a bivalent formula that both boosts immunity against the original coronavirus strain and also protects against the newer Omicron variants that account for most of the current cases (including BA.5 and BA.4). Updated boosters are intended to provide optimal protection against the virus and address waning vaccine effectiveness over time. Vaccinated people age 12 and older should get an updated booster 2 months after their last vaccine dose.

Am I Iikely to become severely ill from Omicron?

While Omicron appears to cause milder illness, the risk of severe illness still exists and depends on many factors including:

  • Vaccination and booster status
  • Confirmed previous infection
  • Age
  • Overall health and comorbidities

How do I protect myself from Omicron?

An updated booster that targets Omicron subvariants is recommended for vaccinated adults age 12 and older. Updated boosters are intended to provide optimal protection against the virus and address waning vaccine effectiveness over time.

Other prevention measures that have been used throughout the pandemic are also effective against contracting or becoming severely ill with Omicron. Those measures include getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing masks in public indoor settings, practicing social distancing, washing your hands frequently, limiting the number of people at gatherings, and following isolation recommendations if you are sick.

Are current treatments effective against Omicron?

While some previously used treatments are ineffective against Omicron, the following treatments are being used to treat Omicron, though some are in short supply:

  • Paxlovid: An antiviral pill made by Pfizer.
  • Remdesivir: An antiviral IV infusion made my Gilead Sciences.
  • Bebtelovimab: A monoclonal antibody treatment made by Eli Lilly and Company.
  • Molnupiravir: An antiviral pill made by Merck.

Getting vaccinated and boosted is the safest way to protect yourself against Omicron.

Am I more protected from Omicron if I am vaccinated or if I have previously had COVID-19?

The protection gained after COVID-19 infection or vaccination is critical in reducing risk of reinfection or breakthrough infection and the associated serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. Immunity wanes over time for both previously infected and vaccinated individuals.

According to a CDC comprehensive review of existing literature regarding infection-induced immunity versus vaccine induced immunity:

  • Infection with the coronavirus and vaccination each result in a low risk of subsequent infection with similar variants for at least six months. Boosters are recommended for vaccinated people and those who have been previously infected.
  • Vaccinating previously infected individuals significantly enhances immune response and reduces risk of subsequent infection.
  • There is less risk involved in gaining protection from a vaccine than through infection.

About variants

Viruses constantly mutate, so new variants are to be expected. Sometimes new variants appear and simply go away, while others stay around. We know that there are multiple COVID-19 variants in the United States and across the world at this time.

COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus. This field of study is helping scientists understand how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads and how sick it makes people.

Some COVID-19 variants seem to spread more easily and quickly, which means they could make more people sick. To prevent becoming ill with COVID-19, people can choose to take prevention steps including:

  • Getting vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible
  • Wearing masks in public indoor settings
  • Practicing social distancing
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Limiting the number of people at gatherings
  • Following isolation recommendations if you become sick.

Do I need to wear a mask?

According to the CDC's COVID-19 Community Levels, El Paso County is currently in level low. If you are at high risk for severe illness, talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to wear a mask and take other precautions. At all community levels, people can wear a mask based on personal preference, risk and level of comfort. Businesses also have the option to require masks and masks are required by Colorado Public Health Order 20-38 in some settings. Regardless of community level, people with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask.

What you need to know

At this time, research trials show that COVID-19 vaccines greatly reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus, regardless of the strain of COVID-19 a person is infected with.

It’s very important that eligible people receive vaccines and a booster as soon as they can. To learn more about vaccines click here. To learn more about vaccine boosters click here.

On September 1, 2022, the CDC issued new recommendations for COVID-19 boosters, after the FDA authorized updated booster formulas from both Pfizer and Moderna. The CDC recommends that everyone who is eligible stay up-to-date on vaccinations by getting an updated booster dose at least 2 months after their last COVID-19 shot — either since their last booster dose, or since completing their primary series. Those who have had a recent COVID-19 infection may wait three months to get the booster. Pfizer’s updated booster shot is recommended for individuals 12 and older, and Moderna’s updated booster shot is recommended for adults 18 and older. 

These new boosters contain an updated bivalent formula that both boosts immunity against the original coronavirus strain and also protects against the newer Omicron variants that account for most of the current cases. Updated boosters are intended to provide optimal protection against the virus and address waning vaccine effectiveness over time.

Multiple variants are circulating globally

The CDC defines a variant of concern as: A variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.

The Variants of Concern in the United States at this time are the:

  • Omicron (B.1.1.529, BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, BA.3, BA.4 and BA.5 lineages)

For more information on variants, please visit the CDC.

To learn more about variants in Colorado, visit the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's COVID-19 Data web page. The COVID-19 Variant Sentinel Surveillance features information about the spread of many variants in Colorado, including the Delta and Omicron variants.