5 things to know about Omicron

COVID-19 continues to evolve, with Omicron as the latest variant to sweep the globe. First identified in South Africa in November 2021, Omicron is more infectious than previous variants and has resulted in coronavirus case counts skyrocketing in Ontario, throughout Canada and around the world.

UHN’s Dr. Alon Vaisman, Infectious Disease Specialist, Infection Prevention and Control, offers key information about Omicron to help you and your loved ones stay safe.

UHN’s Dr. Alon Vaisman, Infectious Disease Specialist, Infection Prevention and Control. (Photo: UHN)

1.           Is Omicron milder than the Delta variant?

The data thus far suggests, including in Ontario, that on a population level, Omicron has resulted in milder illness as compared to the Delta variant. As a proportion of the total number of individuals infected with COVID-19, Omicron has resulted in fewer deaths and hospitalization. It is important to note, though, that Omicron still poses a significant risk in terms of hospitalization and death, particularly among the unvaccinated or those who respond poorly to vaccination due to being immunocompromised. It is also important to note that Omicron is extremely infectious and has a higher capability of infecting individuals who have been vaccinated. As a result, the milder nature of Omicron as compared to Delta has been more than offset by the sheer large numbers of simultaneous infections in the province, resulting in large numbers of hospitalizations across Ontario.

2.           What is the best defense against Omicron?

As with all variants of SARS-CoV-2, the best​defense is vaccination. Although vaccination is less protective against the Omicron variant in terms of causing mild or asymptomatic disease, its protection against severe disease and death remains extremely high. Additionally, as with all variants, masking, distancing, ventilation, hand hygiene, and reducing contacts are all additional measures that can help protect us against acquiring Omicron.

3.           Will there be other future variants that spread just as easily as Omicron?

It is impossible to know what the nature of future variants will be. Some of the variables that will predict the development of new variants include the number of people across the world vaccinated against COVID-19, the degree to which infection with Omicron provides protection against future infections, and the development of future vaccinations that may offers better protection against Omicron and future variants. 

4.           If we’re no longer using COVID-19 case counts in Ontario to assess the severity of the Omicron wave, which numbers should we pay attention to?

Without daily case counts, using daily hospitalizations and ICU admissions, in relation to current hospital bed capacity, with or due to COVID-19 and its complications, will enable us to gauge the severity of this wave and the effects of public health measures to try and slow it down. For most of the pandemic, the primary justification for widespread and significant restrictions was to avoid a surge that would overwhelm healthcare capacity. Thus, focusing on these numbers will be most telling in terms of which direction we’re going in.

5.           What gives you the most hope after having studied COVID-19 so far?

The fact that our vaccines remain extremely protective against severe disease provides significant hope. This, combined with new effective therapeutics and the ability to modify vaccines rapidly, provides us with a significant arsenal to fight this disease that we only discovered two years ago.

Thanks to the availability of vaccines and boosters, the fight against the Omicron variant is less severe than it would have been. Yet, the virus still has the ability to overwhelm our healthcare capacity and make people, especially the unvaccinated and immunocompromised, very sick. For information on how to book a vaccine or booster appointment in different languages in Ontario, click here.

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