A Conversation with DOH’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Kwan-Gett
Omicron is here in Washington in a big way. In the last several weeks, we’ve seen omicron become the most prevalent COVID-19 variant in Washington. Currently, it makes up over 90% of all sequenced specimens.
It’s frustrating to face yet another wave of COVID-19, especially one that’s impacting everybody in some way. But there’s a lot we’re learning about the omicron variant — how it spreads, its severity, and the impact of vaccinations and boosters for protection.
We spoke with Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, the new chief science officer at the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), for a deeper look into the omicron variant. Before coming to DOH to serve as its primary science expert, Dr. Kwan-Gett was a primary care pediatrician at Virginia Mason Sand Point Pediatrics in Seattle and was the faculty lead for the Northwest Public Health Primary Care Leadership Institute.
Thanks for joining us, Dr. Kwan-Gett! Let’s start from the beginning. How does a variant like omicron occur?
A variant is a strain of a virus that has mutated from its previous strain. As viruses grow and multiply, they are constantly undergoing little changes in their genetic sequences, called mutations. Most of the time these little mutations don’t make any difference in how the virus behaves. But sometimes these mutations can make it so the virus spreads easier, or it can cause more severe disease; or it might change the virus to not respond to vaccine or treatments. When a variant causes the virus to change in one of those ways, it becomes something we call a “variant of concern.” Omicron is the latest variant of concern in Washington.
Is omicron more contagious than other variants?
Yes, it seems to spread more easily from person to person. When the omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa, it spread much more rapidly than what we’ve seen with previous variants. That’s also what’s happening as it spreads throughout the United States and in Washington. Cases have gone up very quickly among both adults and children — up to the highest we’ve seen in Washington during the pandemic.
How does the severity of omicron compare to other variants?
Fortunately, the data that we’ve seen so far show that omicron likely causes a milder illness than earlier variants, like delta.
We’re still learning about why. There have been some laboratory studies that suggest that compared to previous variants, the omicron variant tends to spread in your body more in the upper airway (the nose, the throat, the windpipe) than down in the lungs.
On one hand that’s good, because viruses that attack the lungs tend to make you more ill. On the other hand, it may show why this variant is more contagious. A virus in the upper airways can spread more easily, like when you cough, sneeze, or speak.
Does vaccination have an impact on the severity of omicron?
Yes. Unvaccinated people are at a much higher risk of getting severe illness from any COVID-19 variant. If someone is unvaccinated, they are 10x more likely to need to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than someone who is vaccinated. Someone who is unvaccinated is about 15x more likely to die from COVID-19 than someone who is vaccinated.
Vaccination — and especially vaccination plus a booster — works well to lower your chances of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19. COVID-19 vaccination doesn’t always provide complete protection from infection; breakthrough infections can happen.
That’s why it is so important for everybody who is eligible to get vaccinated and boosted. Even if getting vaccinated and boosted doesn’t completely stop the virus in its tracks, it will help us keep as many people out of the hospital –and save as many lives — as we can.
Do you find that boosters work to protect people from omicron?
We’re still learning about this, but early research is encouraging. Some studies show that getting a booster causes your immune system to respond better against the omicron variant than if you only completed your initial vaccine series. And boosters work well to prevent hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
If someone gets a breakthrough infection, what does that mean about how well the vaccines and boosters work?
Even though some vaccinated and boosted people may still get sick, COVID-19 vaccines work very well to prevent hospitalization and death from COVID-19. If you know someone who was vaccinated and got infected, and they didn’t end up in the hospital or have a severe illness, it’s quite possible they have the vaccine to thank for that.
Could natural immunity offer the same protection against omicron?
The most effective protection against omicron — or any COVID-19 variant — is vaccination. And even though COVID-19 from the omicron variant is generally milder, vaccination is still important. It’s too risky to count on getting infected for natural immunity.
Without vaccination, you may end up in the hospital or worse; and you’re more likely to spread the disease to family or friends who will have a severe illness. And while you may have some antibodies from an infection, there’s no telling how much protection you will have and for how long. Don’t take the chance.
With the omicron variant spreading so fast, should people get tested more often?
It’s a difficult time. Testing isn’t as available as we want it to be right now — although that is changing. Both Washington state and the federal government are working to make testing more easily available.
If you don’t have symptoms, and you didn’t have a recent exposure, then you don’t need to test more often than you were before.
But if you have COVID-19 symptoms, it’s important to get tested. Stay home and separate yourself from others as soon as your symptoms appear — act as if you have a COVID-19 infection.
With omicron spreading so fast, many people are finding out about potential exposures. What should someone do after an exposure?
It depends on your vaccination status and if you have symptoms. Check the latest CDC guidance for what to do if you were exposed to COVID-19. If you test positive, read our recent blog for advice on what to do next.
Are there any other precautions we should take against omicron?
- Wear a well-fitting mask. Because omicron spreads so easily, double masking or wearing a higher quality mask like a surgical mask or a KN95 or KF94 mask offers more protection than a regular cloth mask.
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Enable WA Notify on your phone. This will alert you if you’ve been near another user who tested positive for COVID-19.
- If you have any symptoms, stay home. Communicate with each other. If you’re getting ready to gather with someone, and they say they have symptoms, stay home — even if it’s just a runny nose. Don’t take any chances.
Now we’re approaching the two-year mark of COVID-19 in Washington, and a lot of us are feeling pretty exhausted. Do you think we’ll ever move on from the pandemic for good?
Yes, we will! I’m very optimistic it will happen, but I’m not sure when. The safest and best way for all of us to work together to end this pandemic is to get vaccinated and boosted.
This blog is accurate as of the date of posting. Information changes rapidly, so check the state’s COVID-19 website for the most up-to-date info at coronavirus.wa.gov. You can also sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles.
The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to everyone 5 and older. For more information about the vaccine, visit CovidVaccineWA.org and use the vaccine locator tool to find an appointment. The COVID-19 vaccine is provided at no cost to you.
WA Notify can alert you if you’ve been near another user who tested positive for COVID-19. Add WA Notify to your phone today: WANotify.org
Answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington State may be found at our website. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.