As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact around the world, a new threat has been identified — Omicron. First discovered in South Africa and reported to the World Health Organization on November 24, 20211, Omicron is the latest variant of the COVID-19 virus.
With case numbers suddenly spiking, and people desperate to find out about this new variant, we’ve written a blog post answering some common queries about Omicron.
How serious is the Omicron variant?
Early analysis suggests that Omicron may cause less-severe symptoms and a lower death rate than previous COVID-19 variants and the original strain of the virus2. However, data remains limited due to Omicron’s relative infancy.
Although it appears Omicron may be less deadly, it has proven to be highly transmissible3. Throughout December 2021 and into the new year, record case numbers were being reported in many countries, including South Africa, Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As a result, despite Omicron causing a less severe illness, the sheer number of cases is putting strain on healthcare systems, with hospital beds filling rapidly.
What are the symptoms of Omicron?
Data is still being collected to determine the exact symptoms of Omicron, and if they vary from those caused by other COVID-19 variants. Early evidence, however, suggests that a cough, fatigue or tiredness, and congestion and a runny nose are three primary symptoms of Omicron.
Unlike previous COVID-19 variants, Omicron does not appear to regularly cause a loss of taste or smell, though this may still occur4. Promisingly, emerging reports suggest that Omicron may not burrow as deep into the lungs as previous variants, instead more readily infecting cells in the upper airways5. As a result, those with Omicron are less likely to suffer the severe respiratory problems that have made COVID-19 such a deadly disease.
As ever, it’s important to continue to be wary of all COVID-19 symptoms, which CDC lists as6:
- Fever or Chills
- Shortness of Breath or Difficulty Breathing
- Muscle or Body Aches
- New Loss of Taste or Smell
- Sore Throat
- Congestion or Runny Nose
- Nausea or Vomiting
Do current COVID-19 vaccines protect against the new Omicron variant?
Currently, there is mixed reporting on how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are against the Omicron variant. On December 8, 2021, Pfizer reported that “preliminary laboratory studies demonstrate that three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine neutralize the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529 lineage) while two doses show significantly reduced neutralization titers”7.
However, a study in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, suggested that the Pfizer vaccine reduced the risk of infection by just 30%, down from its 60% -70% protection against other variants8.
Receiving a third vaccine, referred to as a “booster”, appears to provide the highest level of protection against Omicron. A briefing from the UK Health Security Agency published in December 2021 advised that a Pfizer booster offered between 70% and 75% protection in the initial weeks after the booster, and around 85.9% efficacy in preventing severe disease and hospitalization9.
Do existing COVID tests detect Omicron?
Yes, existing COVID tests do identify the Omicron variant. In a statement released in late December 2021, the FDA identified that “antigen tests do detect the omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity”10.
Further reports have questioned the efficacy of rapid and at-home tests, suggesting that viral loads must be high for the virus to be detected, and that they may not detect Omicron early in infection11.
The most reliable method of detection remains a PCR test, which involves the swab being sent to a laboratory for analysis. This type of test is able to detect even a small amount of COVID genes in a sample, meaning the virus can be identified regardless of the level of infection. In November 2021, following the discovery of the Omicron variant, the WHO stated that “the widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron”12.
What effect is the new variant having on businesses?
In early January, daily COVID-19 cases in the US surpassed 1 million for the first time, leading to a seven-day average of 600,000 new cases per day. This spike in cases is causing significant problems for businesses across many different industries.
With such a high number of people testing positive for COVID-19, and consequently having to self-isolate, businesses are experiencing serious labor shortages, in addition to the staffing problems that plagued them throughout 2021. In New York, restaurants and other businesses are being forced to close due to a lack of healthy and available staff13, while more than 4,000 schools were expected to close for one day or more during the first week of 202114.
The problems for businesses don’t stop there. Those reliant on customers visiting in person are seeing footfall decline, with patrons instead preferring to stay at home and limit their risk of exposure15. Even when businesses such as restaurants have a suitable staff to open, they are serving fewer customers.
Businesses are also familiar with fractured supply chains, which caused difficulties throughout 2021. Worryingly, Omicron’s emergence has added further pressure, with the Federal Reserve expecting supply chain problems to persist longer than previously expected as a direct result of the new variant16.
How do I protect my business, staff, and customers from the new variant?
To protect everyone at your business, it’s important to continue maintaining a hygienic environment, with thorough cleaning taking place regularly using top-of-the-range sanitary products. Other measures, such as requiring customers and staff to wear masks, enforcing a six-feet social distancing policy, and limiting capacity, may also help to minimize the risk of an Omicron outbreak at your business.
Even if you maintain the cleanest of working environments, your employees may still catch the virus, so it’s important to consider protecting your business against its own staffing shortage. By partnering with a reliable staffing agency, you can rest assured you have backup in the event of an outbreak among your employees.
CNECT has been supporting its members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, providing them with access to the cleaning products they need to protect their customers and staff and ensuring they have staffing solutions available if required.