Though symptoms of the strain have been described as “mild” in comparison to previous variants, that mainly applies to those who are fully vaccinated and boosted. For those who are still unvaccinated or immunocompromised, it’s a different story at a population level.
“We have to remember: We’re a country that has over 35% of individuals who are not vaccinated,” Dr. Stella Safo, an NYC-based HIV primary care physician, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “And any variant of COVID, unfortunately, in the unvaccinated is severe.”
Those who are unvaccinated are 20 times more likely to die and 17 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of COVID-19, which is likely contributing to the massive surge in hospitalizations across the U.S.
Furthermore, given the amount of mutations with Omicron, natural immunity provided by previous infection is less protective than before.
“We shouldn’t underestimate COVID,” Safo said. “Every single time we’ve thought that we’re getting ahead in some way, COVID kind of forces us to respect it all over again. And one of the things that I think the COVID strategy requires of us is to be multifaceted.”
Boosters are also a factor: New data from Alberta, Canada, found that the “hospitalization rate among 3x-vaccinated 80+ year olds is lower than the hospitalization rate among unvaccinated 12-29-year-olds.”
'Cannot afford to be cavalier' with Omicron
As of January 15, 62.9% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, 74.8% have received one dose, and 37.8% have been boosted.
And because symptoms haven't been as severe in those who are vaccinated and boosted, along with the politics involved, mask mandates and other public health restrictions that were initially seen at the beginning of the pandemic are not as viable.
As Safo stated, however, any variant that arises poses a serious health risk for both unvaccinated and immunocompromised individuals.
“There are people I work with, people I know, who have compromised immune systems who have gotten all three vaccines, whose immune systems are still compromised enough that if they got COVID, they’d be really sick,” Safo said. “Those individuals cannot afford to be cavalier about ‘Well, I’ll get COVID at some point and that’s it.’ Because they could get COVID and die.”
“I think there’s a real fear that many people have, still, of what this means for certain high-risk populations,” Safo said. “We really have to be sensitive to that, at a point where we can still control the spread through things like masking and really being mindful about what kind of things we have opened that are non-essential where people are getting infected currently.”
There’s also the possibility of individuals — vaccinated or not — developing long-term effects from COVID regardless of how mild their cases are. Long COVID symptoms can range from fatigue, "brain fog," and heart palpitations to autoimmune conditions, according to the CDC.
Furthermore, Safo noted, the U.S. population “carries quite a bit” of chronic illness such as diabetes, hypertension, and renal disease that may be made worse by any infection.
“All those individuals are still at risk for some complications with COVID,” she said. “When we talk cavalierly about how everyone will get COVID, yes many people will get COVID, [but] not everyone will get COVID, even if they’re unvaccinated, and be OK.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.