The United States is facing an unprecedented surge of Covid-19 infections, driven in large part by the very highly contagious Omicron variant. New research is coming out every day about Omicron, and people have many questions about what this surge — and the new variant — means for considering personal risk.
To begin with, what is the risk of Omicron to someone who is vaccinated and boosted? Are vaccinated children safe to go back to school? Is it safe to continue going to restaurants and concerts? And what’s the best way to protect kids under age 5 who are too young to be vaccinated?
For guidance, I spoke with our expert, CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health,” and the mom of two young kids.
CNN: What’s the main thing you want vaccinated people to know about Omicron?
Dr. Leana Wen: Everyone wants to know what’s the risk of this new variant to us and our families. Overall, there is reassuring news: Research strongly points to Omicron causing milder infection than the previously dominant Delta variant.
Also, people who are vaccinated and boosted are well protected against severe illness, and vaccination and boosting also reduces the likelihood of mild illness, too.
This means the risk to the individual person who is vaccinated and boosted is low. Someone who is generally healthy and vaccinated will probably not end up in the hospital if they contract Omicron. Those who are unvaccinated remain at high risk for severe disease, and one of the problems we are seeing is that hospitals are getting filled because of the number of people who are unvaccinated and then get infected with Covid-19.
Overwhelmed hospitals impact care for everyone, because if hospitals are at or over capacity, people may end up with long delays to get the care that they need. This doesn’t just affect people with Covid-19, but patients with appendicitis, chest pain, and who are victims of car accidents could end up waiting many hours to be treated.
CNN: Are vaccinated children safe to go back to school? Are there specific things that can help to reduce risk?
Wen: Yes to both. It is crucial for schools to remain open for in-person instruction. We have seen the many negative consequences of removing children from the classroom, and plenty of studies have documented that schools can be very safe from a Covid-19 standpoint, when protective measures are in place.
Vaccination is a key layer of protection. If your child is vaccinated, that reduces the chance of your child getting infected — and especially of getting severely ill — from Covid-19. Making sure that your child is wearing a high-quality mask at all times, indoors, is very important too. A single-layer cloth mask just isn’t enough to protect against such a contagious variant as Omicron.
Everyone should be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask — a cloth mask on top can help with fit. An N95 or KN95 mask is even better protection.
If you are particularly concerned for your kids — for example, if they have an underlying medical condition — you should contact the school and see if they can make additional accommodations, especially around mealtime. Unmasked children eating together, in close proximity, is a setting that could result in Covid-19 transmission. Perhaps the school is already taking precautions, such as having kids eat outside or in well-ventilated spaces, sitting apart. If not, ask if your child can eat in a space away from others, perhaps in an unused classroom.
CNN: What about unvaccinated kids, can they go back to school?
Wen: First, I strongly recommend that all children 5 and older to get vaccinated. Vaccination is more important now than ever, with so much virus circulating.
Unvaccinated children are at greater risk for contracting Covid-19 and spreading it, as well becoming severely ill. That said, other protective measures can still make it possible to send your unvaccinated child to school. Wearing a high-quality mask protects your child. Of course, it’s better if other kids around your child are all wearing masks. Even if they are not, masking still protects your child.
CNN: The US Food and Drug Administration just authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech booster for children ages 12 to 15. Should my teen get a booster shot once it’s available? (Vaccine advisers to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss whether to recommend boosters for that age group, and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has the final say.)
Wen: If your teen is eligible, yes, absolutely, I would recommend the booster shot. The first two doses protect well against severe illness, but effectiveness to mild illness from Omicron is diminished. The booster dose restores this protection. The booster is particularly important if your teen has underlying medical conditions like asthma or obesity that predispose to more severe illness.
CNN: Is it safe for vaccinated and boosted people to go to a concert, sporting event or restaurant?
Wen: This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on what you mean by “safe.” In most US communities, the level of Covid-19 is extremely high. Going to any of these places means that you will get exposed to coronavirus, because chances are high that someone around you will be carrying coronavirus.
That said, you can substantially reduce your risk. Outdoors remains safer than indoors, and outdoor concerts and sporting events will be much lower risk than if they were indoors. Indoors, making sure to wear a high-quality mask and keeping it on at all times will also make the activity a lot safer.
The same applies for dining, though, obviously, you won’t have your mask on to eat, and others won’t either. Outdoor restaurants are much safer than indoor restaurants. Indoor restaurants and bars are high risk settings, though ventilation and spacing can reduce the risk somewhat. Whether you go depends on how you feel about getting a breakthrough infection. Some people will want to return to pre-pandemic activities and would not be too bothered if they developed symptoms. Others fear the risk of long-haul symptoms and the unknowns of Omicron and would probably want to avoid indoor restaurants while Covid-19 cases are surging.
CNN: What about children under age 5, what’s the best way to protect them?
Wen: I have two kids under 5, and they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated yet. The best way to protect them is to surround them with others who are fully vaccinated. Adults caring for the kids, including parents, grandparents, teachers and babysitters, should be vaccinated and boosted. Older siblings who are eligible to be vaccinated should get the vaccine.
Beyond that, we can also make sure kids over age 2 are masked in indoor settings, and try to reduce indoor gatherings with others. This is not the time for indoor birthday parties and playdates. And I also hope that the FDA will expedite review and authorization for vaccines in this younger age group, as these younger kids are particularly vulnerable right now, given the high level of virus all around us.
CNN: Should I try to catch Covid-19 since I hear Omicron isn’t so bad?
Wen: I hear this question being asked a lot, including from people who have been very careful throughout the pandemic. I understand where this question is coming from. It is true that those who are vaccinated and boosted are unlikely to become very ill, especially if they are generally healthy. And getting Omicron, in addition to vaccination, probably confers an additional level of immunity.
However, there are still consequences to this infection. Some people — especially the unvaccinated, but also a small proportion of the vaccinated — could become very ill. Some could have long-term consequences. No one wants to inadvertently spread a disease to people around us, including vulnerable elderly individuals or children too young to be vaccinated. And there’s no evidence that contracting Omicron would be better than boosters in protecting against future variants.
The bottom line is that we should do our best to avoid getting Omicron. Take simple measures that protect you, and reduce your likelihood of infecting others, like wearing a mask while in indoor public spaces. For most people, that’s a small price to pay to avoid being sick.
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