The U.S. has just entered its third calendar year with the coronavirus spreading, and the COVID pandemic is still feeling far from contained. In the last week, cases in the country have increased by more than 85 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This latest surge has been brought on by the Omicron variant, which is currently estimated to account for over 95 percent of infections in the U.S. Even when compared to the fast-spreading Delta variant, this version of COVID has seriously outpaced its predecessor. That means everyone needs to be on high alert, even if they’ve gotten all available doses of the COVID vaccine.
During a Jan. 11 Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) interview, top White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, discussed the current course of the pandemic, giving a sobering warning to all Americans about the Omicron variant. According to the infectious disease expert, it’s likely that everyone will end up exposed to this version of the virus, regardless of vaccination status.
“I think, in many respects, Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody,” Fauci told J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the CSIS. “Those who have been vaccinated and vaccinated and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected.”
The infectious disease expert is not the only official who has recently discussed the inevitability of encountering Omicron. During a Senate Committee hearing on Jan. 11, Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), confirmed that increased exposure from the Omicron variant means a staggering number of new infections.
“It’s hard to process what’s actually happening with now, which is most people are going to get COVID,” she said, per The Washington Post.
According to Fauci, unvaccinated individuals are still going to “get the brunt of the severe aspect” of the Omicron variant, although this version of the virus is said to be less severe overall than previous strains. Per the infectious disease expert, unvaccinated people have a 10 times greater chance of getting infected, a 17 times greater chance of getting hospitalized, and a 20 times greater chance of dying from COVID compared to those who have been inoculated.
Vaccinated and boosted people will, on the other hand “very likely … do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death,” Fauci said. But no matter their vaccination status, not everyone is guaranteed a positive outcome if exposed and infected with this variant. And even if most people have a mild case, the sheer number of infections has serious consequences.
“When you quantitatively have so many people who are infected, a fraction of them, even if it’s a small fraction, are going to get seriously ill and are going to die, and that’s the reason why it will challenge our health system,” Fauci explained to Morrison.
There’s another reason why getting vaccinated and boosted is still important, even if you might get infected with Omicron anyway. During the Senate hearing, Fauci warned that infection from the Omicron variant may not be able to provide individuals with natural immunity against future variants.
“If we wind up getting infected with Omicron at a very, very low level of pathogenicity, is that going to be sort of almost like a live attenuated vaccine? I don’t think we can say that right now,” Fauci said. “We really have to see how things spread out, when we see how that fares in the next variant. So there will be invariably another variant; we’re going to have to take a look at whether or not there’s going to be any protection there.”