Just in time for the holidays, Omicron, the latest coronavirus variant, has been reported in at least five states. Although much remains unknown about the new mutation, Duke experts say there’s reason to be concerned about Omicron, even if you’re vaccinated.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe and Dr. David Montefiori held a press briefing Friday on the virus, current transmission, and how to protect your family this season. 

Omicron has spread rapidly in recent weeks in countries like South Africa, affecting children under five years old at an unprecedented rate. Like its predecessors Alpha and Beta, Omicron attacks cells in the body using a special spike protein. Vaccines essentially block that spike from binding with the cell, but early tests of the variant show many mutations present that may react differently to vaccines. Further tests are needed, but spike protein mutations are what may have contributed to breakthrough cases of the Beta variant. 

“Multiple laboratories around the world are racing right now to isolate the virus and grow it up in the laboratory to do the initial test to give us an indication to what extent this variant might escape our vaccines,” Montefiori said. “We expect other laboratories to have it grown up by the end of next week and then the tests can be done relatively quickly … we will certainly see a lot of data before the holidays.”

One cause for concern is that those with natural immunity—gained from having contracted COVID—may not be as strong in avoiding contracting Omicron, Wolfe said. But until doctors see how cases of the virus play out in clinical settings, it will be hard to gauge Omicron’s severity. Currently, treatment for COVID focuses on reducing the inflammation that occurs as the body fights the virus. 

This week, North Carolina has seen an uptick in new cases of the Delta variant of the virus. On Friday, there were 3,720 reported cases, a 7 percent positivity rate. Nearly 70 percent of adults are fully vaccinated.

Wolfe says the upcoming holiday season could see a further increase in cases. The reason is simple: it’s cold, and more folks will be gathering indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. 

“Frankly, maybe we’ve just eased our guard off a little bit,” Wolfe said. “Boosting and vaccination helps but it’s also masking, [social] distancing, hand washing, and air quality.” 

Resident with travel plans should get tested beforehand, Wolfe advised.

“The way the pandemic has been going in the United States we have not reached that magic number of herd immunity,” Montefiori said. “The key is going to be for more people to get vaccinated.” 

Find out if you are eligible for a booster shot here.

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Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to ltauss@indyweek.com.