With SMH Infectious Disease Specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD
** NOTE: This content was published Dec. 20, 2021. Information related to the COVID-19, vaccines and treatments is continually evolving. For the most up to date info, we recommend visiting the CDC’s website and the FDA website.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Florida and the Omicron variant spreading across the U.S., it’s important that we all stay informed and not let our guard down as we head into the winter holidays — peak cold and flu season.
“Every day, we’re gathering more data to help understand and predict what the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, has in store for us,” said Sarasota Memorial Infectious Disease specialist and epidemiologist Manuel Gordillo, MD. “With such rapid community spread, we must do everything we’ve been doing to prevent the spread of the virus … plus more.”
In this video blog post, Dr. Gordillo addresses common questions about the Omicron variant, shares insights on effective protections and precautions, and discusses how we can safely celebrate the holiday season.
Should we be concerned about the Omicron variant in Florida?
Most of what we know about the Omicron variant so far comes from what we’ve seen in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, and early data from the U.S. and other countries where the variant is spreading.
The first concern with the Omicron variant is that it’s much more infectious than other strains. It’s 3 times more contagious than the highly infectious Delta variant. In just over a month, Omicron has spread to more than 75 countries, including much of the United States.
There is no curve to flatten with Omicron. The path of this variant goes straight up.
Equally concerning, studies show that Omicron may evade the antibody protection provided by COVID-19 vaccines, and in South Africa, where most people are younger — the average age is 29 — and unvaccinated, it’s also infecting people who had natural immunity from previous COVID infection.
The good news is that while studies show vaccines are still very effective at preventing severe illness and death from Omicron, booster shots appear to further bolster your protection against infection.
Your Omicron Prevention Plan
Get a booster shot as soon as you're eligible.
Wash your hands frequently and properly.
Choose outdoor gatherings over indoor.
When in public and indoors, wear a quality, properly fitted face mask and social distance.
What can we do to protect ourselves and minimize the risks to others?
Although early reports indicate the variant is causing mostly mild illnesses, even if only a small percentage of people get severely ill from Omicron, the impact on Florida, with its large elderly population, will likely be much greater and could lead to another spike in hospitalizations and deaths among high-risk people in the weeks ahead.
Getting a booster shot now, or as soon as you are eligible, is key for those who’ve already been fully vaccinated. The booster shot offers protection 7 days after you get it, providing moderate defense from infection and robust protection against hospitalization, severe disease and death from COVID-19.
Those who are not yet vaccinated should complete their vaccine series as soon as possible, and then get the booster as soon as you’re eligible.
And, regardless of vaccination or booster status, we all need to follow the public health precautions we’ve become used to during this pandemic: Wash your hands frequently. Stay home if you’re sick, even if it’s just the sniffles. Wear a mask and physical distancing in public.
Slowing the spread of infection will help communities avoid supply chain disruptions, mass absences in the workplace and over-filled hospitals.
We all must do our part to keep first responders and healthcare workers caring for our community, teachers educating our students, and our essential workers, businesses and government agencies operating smoothly.
How effective are the vaccines against Omicron and other variants?
No vaccine is 100% effective. People who are vaccinated can still be infected with the virus, but if it prevents them from getting critically ill and dying from COVID-19, the vaccine is successful.
The good news is that all of the vaccines available in the United States offer substantial protection against the coronavirus and its variants.
While studies show they are still very effective at keeping you out of the hospital if you get sick with COVID-19’s latest variant, Omicron, booster shots appear to be the key, especially for people vaccinated in the first half of 2021.
Early data indicates that we will see more infections among vaccinated people who haven’t had their boosters and reinfection among those infected with COVID in the past. Laboratory tests show that antibody protection against Omicron shot way up after a third vaccine dose.
Is it safe to travel and gather for the holidays?
Yes, but we must be careful. People who are fully vaccinated and have had a booster shot can feel comfortable gathering with small groups of friends and families who also are vaccinated and boosted.
If you’re unvaccinated, you’re vulnerable.
Gathering outdoors is better than indoors, and small gatherings are safer than large ones.
Masks can make a big difference. Make sure you use a high-quality mask: N95/KN95s are better than cloth masks and surgical masks.
Before getting together, take advantage of free community testing sites, or use a rapid self-test within 24 hours of gathering. While not 100% accurate, self-tests can pick up asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases. Anyone who gets a positive self-test result should confirm the result with a follow-up PCR test.
What else do we need to consider during the winter season?
A lot of winter viruses have symptoms similar to COVID-19 – headaches, body aches, sore throat, coughing, runny nose. It will be hard to distinguish between COVID, flu, the common cold and even allergies.
The bottom line? If you’re sick, if you’ve been exposed to COVID, if you’ve traveled recently or were in a high-risk situation (like a large group of people), get tested. It’s better than risking spreading the virus to someone more vulnerable.