Good news about omicron: It may pass quickly, pose small threat to vaccinated, experts say

Two pieces of good news about omicron to take into the new year: It may not be around for long, and people who are fully vaccinated don't need to worry, as long as they have a healthy immune system.

Because omicron is so incredibly contagious, medical experts say its peak isn't likely to last long.

It's already burned through South Africa since it was first identified the day before Thanksgiving and cases are falling there. In the week ending Dec. 26, the number of newly diagnosed had dropped nearly 36% from their peak a week earlier, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

If the Northeast, which has been battered by COVID-19's omicron variant over the past two weeks, follows the same pattern, it could see falling case rates as soon as mid-January, though since the U.S. is so large, it's likely to take time to move across the country, experts say.

The news is even better for people with the vaccine. Although two shots are not as protective against omicron as they were against previous variants, vaccination and boosting seems to make a big difference in people with a healthy immune system.

Amid the omicron variant spreading, travelers at an airport on Dec. 20, 2021, in Miami.

Those with three shots who get infected seem to suffer just a bad sore throat and some fatigue and muscle pain for a few days, Dr. Craig Spencer, an emergency room physician in New York City, said Monday in a Twitter thread.

People who've had two shots get somewhat worse symptoms.

"More fatigued. More fever. More coughing. A little more miserable overall," he wrote.

Those who've had just one shot, he said, fared worse, feeling horrible for a number of days: "Not great, but not life-threatening."

Virtually all of those who have to be admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, said Spencer, who works at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center: "Every one with profound shortness of breath. Every one whose oxygen dropped when they walked. Every one needing oxygen to breathe regularly."

Sandile Cele, a researcher at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, works on the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus Wednesday Dec. 15, 2021. South Africa's noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country's dramatic omicron-driven wave has passed its peak, medical experts say.

Doctors at other hospitals corroborated his account. Vaccinated people simply have fewer symptoms and are sick for shorter periods, several said.

The one exception are those whose immune systems are weak, perhaps because of medication or old age. 

"The immunocompromised and people who are particularly frail – there we have to be careful," said Dr. Rajesh Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "That's an important group that despite vaccination haven't been fully protected."

The number of patients at Mass. General has more than doubled in the past two weeks, from about 40 to 45 with COVID-19 during the delta wave to now over 100 as omicron has taken over, Gandhi said. Phone calls to the hospital have skyrocketed, too, with more than 500 asking for information over Christmas weekend, he said, referring to it as "an unprecedented number."

Omicron has also made it trickier to help people stay out of the hospital, Gandhi said. Two of the three monoclonal antibodies routinely given to people at high risk for severe disease no longer work against omicron, while a third, sotrovimab, is in short supply.

Two antiviral pills, Paxlovid and molnupiravir, authorized by the Food and Drug Administration last week, are much easier to give and could make a profound difference in the pandemic, Gandhi said. But they're not widely available yet, and he hasn't had any to offer.

This image, provided by Pfizer in October 2021, shows the company’s COVID-19 Paxlovid pill. U.S. health regulators on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, authorized the first pill against COVID-19, a Pfizer drug that Americans will be able to take at home to head off the worst effects of the virus.

Although researchers believe omicron may be less dangerous than previous variants, because it's so contagious, it may still land just as many or more people in the hospital, said Jeremy Luban, an infectious disease expert at the UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts.

That means a return to the days of trying to "flatten the curve" to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed, said Luban and Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease expert at Mass. General, who joined Gandhi and other Massachusetts researchers on a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon.

"We have to hold these two realities of omicron in our mind as we think about how to go forward," Lemieux said. "The picture is not totally bleak. With these new medicines … it really does suggest there's light at the end of the tunnel, but we have to get through the tunnel, and the tunnel is long, and it's looking dark for the next few weeks at least."

FILE - Environmental technician Gerardo Velazquez cleans a room after a COVID-19 patient was transferred to an intensive care unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. The worldwide surge in coronavirus cases driven by the new omicron variant is the latest blow to already strained hospitals, nursing homes, police departments and supermarkets struggling to maintain a full contingent of nurses, police officers and other essential workers as the pandemic enters its third year.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

By moving so fast and infecting so many people, hopefully in a less serious way, could omicron give lots of people immunity and help hasten the end of the pandemic? 

Unfortunately, probably not.

"The idea of a less pathogenic virus that could instill cross-protective immunity without causing long COVID would certainly be a godsend," said Dr. Bruce Walker, founding director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, which focuses on immunology. "I don't think any of us is willing to say that omicron is it. In fact, I think it's likely that it's not."

Contributing: Mike Stucka

Contact Karen Weintraub at

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