COVID-19 Variants

Omicron Variant 

Photo of microscope

Omicron is a COVID-19 variant that was first detected in November in South Africa. Since the first case of the Omicron variant was detected in the U.S. on Dec. 1, is has quickly become the dominant strain throughout the nation. At the state level, where CDPHE tracks weekly proportions of variants of concern, 100 percent of samples sequence came back positive as the Omicron variant for the week of Dec. 26. The more transmissible Omicron variant contributed to the rapid increases in local disease metrics in El Paso County. 

Everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated and boosters are recommended for everyone 5 years and older. For more information, click here and here.

What’s different about the Omicron variant? 

Omicron appears to spread more quickly than the Delta variant. Omicron does appear to cause milder illness, although the risk of severe illness still exists and depends on many factors, including whether you are vaccinated and boosted, confirmed previous infection, age, and overall health and any comorbidities.  

Is Omicron milder than past variants of COVID-19?

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?

The same prevention measures that have been used throughout the pandemic are 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 quarantine and isolation recommendations if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19 or you become 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.
  • Molnupiravir: An antiviral pill made by Merck.
  • Remdesivir: An antiviral IV infusion made my Gilead Sciences.

Vaccination 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 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 quarantine and isolation recommendations if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19 or 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 medium. 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 the three COVID-19 vaccines — those made by Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) — 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.

It’s also important to know that should a COVID-19 variant ever severely impact the effectiveness of our vaccines, scientists and health officials are confident that the vaccines can be quickly adjusted to effectively combat the mutated virus with specialized booster shots. In fact, that’s exactly what scientists do with the flu vaccine every year, adjusting it to effectively fight the mutated flu virus.

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)

At this point, research suggests that the Omicron and Delta variants spread more easily and quickly than the original virus, which can lead to increased cases of COVID-19.

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.