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What We Know About the Omicron Variant

COVID-19 test
Jelena Stanojkovic | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

The University of Kentucky Public Relations and Strategic Communications Office provides a weekly health column available for use and reprint by news media. This week's column is by Rebecca Dutch, Ph.D., chair of the University of Kentucky's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 20, 2021) — A new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been identified that leaves many people wondering if their vaccinations will continue to provide protection. While there is still much unknown about the omicron variant, initial anecdotal reports bear some promising news.

The omicron variant was first identified by researchers in South Africa in November and has since been found throughout the United States. In some parts of the world, it has overtaken delta as the most prevalent variant, but early reports, while preliminary, indicate that while it does appear to be more transmissible, it doesn’t seem to be more deadly.

Researchers are still trying to determine how pathogenic the new variant is — meaning how capable omicron is causing severe illness and death. But recent reports indicate that while the number of COVID-19 infections is rising in some areas, the number of deaths and hospitalizations is not.

Many scientists do think that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is probably here to stay. In such a scenario, the virus would become endemic, much like the other human coronaviruses, with most people experiencing infection with mild symptoms multiple times over their lifetime, with only a small percentage of cases resulting in more serious illness.

Vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 has so proven to be very effective in preventing serious illness and death. People who aren’t vaccinated, and those who are but have compromised immune systems or certain underlying health concerns, are at greatly increased risk for developing severe COVID-19 and its long-term complications. The majority of those who are fully vaccinated who have contracted a “breakthough” case report mild symptoms or no symptoms.

As the holiday approaches, health officials urge people to get their vaccinations and their boosters. It is still advised to wear a mask when in crowded areas and to maintain good hand hygiene practices. If you are exposed to someone with the virus, it’s important to get tested to avoid spreading the virus to someone in your family who is older or who may be immunosuppressed.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.