Experts Advise Heightened Protection Against Omicron Variant During Holiday Gatherings

Experts from the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommend enhanced protection measures against the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Although canceling holiday gatherings may not be necessary, experts in a press briefing by the Infectious Diseases Society of America advised increasing layers of protection, such as proper ventilation, mask wearing, and social distancing.

As of the briefing on Thursday morning, one case of the Omicron variant has been identified in California, in an individual who had recently traveled. According to Carlos del Rio, MD, executive associate dean at the Emory School of Medicine, it is very likely that there are more cases circulating in the country, underlining the need for heightened testing.

The Omicron variant is of particular concern because of the more than 32 mutations found in its spike protein. Some of these mutations have been associated with more efficient cell increase, immune evasion, and increased infectivity, although del Rio emphasized that data on these concerns are not yet conclusive. How all of these mutations interact has also not yet been identified.

“We need to follow the science and be patient,” del Rio said in the press briefing. “We don’t know what this variant really is and we need to, again, wait for more data.”

Thus far, del Rio said there is no evidence that the Omicron variant causes more severe disease, and some evidence suggests that it may actually cause more mild illness. Regardless, he said he is hopeful that the currently available vaccines will hold up against severe disease, even with these mutations.

When asked about the development of COVID-19 treatments, del Rio said major progress has been made with the development of monoclonal antibodies and the potential upcoming emergency use authorization for Merck’s COVID-19 pill. However, scaling up access to monoclonal antibodies has been limited by nurse staffing shortages. Regardless, del Rio said preventive efforts, such as vaccinations, will be essential to ending the pandemic.

“We’re not going to treat ourselves out of this epidemic,” del Rio said in the press briefing.

Following del Rio’s comments, Julie Vaishampayan, MD, MPH, FIDSA, public health officer for Stanislaus County in California, discussed public health responses to the Omicron variant as well as ways patients can stay safe. Testing, vaccinations, and basic safety measures are the cornerstones of the public health response, Vaishampayan said in the press briefing. The point of these efforts is to slow the spread of the Omicron variant and to better understand how it behaves.

When counseling patients, Vaishampayan said urging vaccination is still vital.

“Really, it’s the safest way we all know to develop immunity,” Vaishampayan said in the press briefing.

She added that boosters are recommended to help increase antibody levels, and basic safety measures, such as effective ventilation and mask wearing, are recommended for individuals gathering in groups this holiday season. With the addition of cold and flu season, Vaishampayan said testing is also an important effort to ensure safety.

Although data are still forthcoming about exactly how the Omicron variant behaves and what that could mean for patients, both del Rio and Vaishampayan agreed that continued safety measures will be essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19 during the holidays. Pharmacists can encourage vaccination, help patients access testing, and advise patients on the differences between a cold, the flu, and COVID-19 symptoms.

REFERENCE

Infectious Diseases Society of America Media Briefing. Zoom. December 2, 2021. Accessed December 2, 2021.