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One year since omicron: What have we learned?

It will be a year since omicron first made the news during the Thanksgiving holidays

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An illustration for the omicron variant.

An illustration for the omicron variant.

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

It’s been a year since omicron started driving infections. The news arrived during the Thanksgiving holidays in 2021.

It initially emerged in South Africa and prompted concern worldwide, as the Deseret News reported at the time.

The COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, named “omicron,” had more mutations than other strains.

Shortly after the news broke, travel restrictions ensued. The U.S. restricted travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi as a precautionary move.

It was clear early on that the symptoms this variant created were less severe than other strains.

Initial data indicated omicron created milder symptoms, but those unvaccinated and uninfected were still at risk for a severe infection, as Herb Scribner reported in mid-December.

How did COVID-19 evolve?

At the time, the most common COVID-19 symptoms included a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and sore throat. Meanwhile, a loss of the sense of taste becomes less common.

With that said, the virus also posed concerns about the pace at which it spread, as the Deseret News reported.

“It is spreading faster than the delta variant in South Africa where delta circulation was low, but also appears to spread more quickly than the delta variant in other countries where the incidence of delta is high, such as in the United Kingdom,” the World Health Organization said in a technical briefing. “Given the current available data, it is likely that omicron will outpace the delta variant where community transmission occurs.”

If it spreads faster, it infects more people, leaving more room for deaths, hospitalizations and breakthrough cases.

When did omicron drive a big wave?

A month after omicron was detected, the travel restrictions set in. As the Deseret News reported, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, said on Dec. 19 the subvariant would likely cause a new wave of cases — which it did.

“This virus is extraordinary,” Fauci told CNN at the time.

“We are doing better if you look now compared to where we were a year ago,” he said, per the report. “We now have multiple at-home tests available, and we virtually had none a year ago. But we do need to do better.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicates that between late December 2021 and early January 2022, cases reached a high of over 4 million weekly. Since that wave, there hasn’t been another that severe.

Omicron mutation BA.2 started making the rounds earlier this year. Over the summer, BA.5 took the lead for causing highest number of cases. Both of these subvariants caused mild symptoms.

Omicron strain BA.5 is still dominant in the U.S. and is currently behind nearly 24% of cases. But two new mutations have emerged — BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants, both descendants of BA.5 — which are causing a total of 49% of infections, according to CDC estimates.

What’s next for omicron?

Americans are encouraged to get the updated booster shot that specifically targets omicron variants as well as the original COVID-19 strains.

“I know there’s no mandates around these days, but you can lower your individual risk of getting COVID by putting on a mask in an indoor setting where we know the vast majority of COVID is transmitted,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto, per Global News.

People may experience deja vu as COVID-19 continues to spread for another holiday season. With that said, the situation seems much better for many than it did last year, as Maia Majumder, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told The Atlantic.

“I think people perceive the current circumstances to be safer than they were last year,” she said, adding that omicron is still lingering as a reminder of how quickly things can take a turn.