As the world warily approaches the second anniversary of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, who would’ve guessed that family dinner conversations would include phrases like “breakthrough infections” and “variants of concern?”
But now that the winter holidays are in the rearview and seasonal decorations stuffed in the basement, we’re seeing a surge in COVID-19 infections, the majority of which are caused by the Omicron variant.
Here, two infectious disease experts provide insight into this new variant and what parents need to know to protect their kids.
The stats so far
Currently, the number of cases of COVID-19 are higher than they were in March 2020 (back when people still associated face masks with Halloween costumes), and while children account for the smallest age group to be hospitalized because of the coronavirus, the start of the new year saw 870 children in hospital beds — the highest number so far.
As of Jan. 8, the Omicron variant accounts for 98.3% of all COVID-19 cases, overtaking the Delta variant in under four weeks, according to the CDC.
Although Omicron results in milder illness — with symptoms closer to the flu compared to former, more severe COVID-19 strains — it’s more transmissible and thus more dangerous, according to health experts.
“You can get two people sick in the same amount of time that you got one person sick before,” Alison Tribble, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, says. “With the numbers that we’re seeing everywhere, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing more kids in the hospital.”
In Chicago, 89.6% of ICU hospital beds are filled and a third of that number is because of COVID-19, according to city data. There have been more than 70,000 cases among 0 to 17-year-olds, which is nearly 15% of cases, and seven pediatric deaths.
How to protect your family
Tribble says vaccination is the number one tool children have to battle COVID-19.
For all — especially kids younger than 5 and those who can’t be vaccinated yet — habits such as mask-wearing, social distancing and good hygiene remain important.
Upgrading the family mask supply to KN95s and N95s is also a good step, she says.
In addition, Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, advises people to not “let down their guard.”
“I know that people have been very lax over the holidays and they were going out with no mask on or are going to these big gatherings, but this is really not the time to do it,” Tan, an infectious disease physician at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, says.
According to Tan, hospitalization numbers are more important than the case count because the latter tracks spread while the former reveals the severity. The danger level, though, is still being researched and experts don’t know how transmissible Omicron is, only that it’s more contagious than other strains.
Coping with Omicron
With a 13-year-old who just got a booster shot and a 3-year-old who likely won’t be vaccinated until April, Tribble knows all too well the frustrations of seeing another COVID-19 surge in cases.
“I think it’s also important to balance all of this with maintaining your family’s mental health, physical health, keeping kids in school — all of those things are important, too,” she says.
Apart from being more transmissible than other strains, Omicron also has a shorter incubation period, which means it takes less time from exposure to be sick, according to Tribble.
With the Delta variant, the time between infection and symptoms was five days. With Omicron, it’s three.
The shorter incubation period means a person is most contagious one day before symptoms appear: “If people get to that peak of infectiousness faster, then it takes less time for them to spread it to the next person,” Tribble says.
As at-home test kits face backlogs, communities encounter long lines at mass testing sites and hospitals struggle with the latest surge, both Tan and Tribble emphasize the importance of vaccines, face masks and social distancing as key to controlling the spread.
Quick answers to common Omicron questions
What symptoms does Omicron cause?
A vaccinated child infected with the Omicron variant will most likely have a “stuffy nose” and a fever, according to Tan. A moderately severe case caused by Omicron, the variant that accounts for nearly all current COVID-19 cases, results in fever, cough, body aches, fatigue and headaches.
How dangerous is Omicron?
While symptoms are more flu-like than COVID-19-like, the Omicron variant is much more transmissible than past strains and results in more cases, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths.
If I’m exposed to COVID-19, when should I get tested?
Get tested immediately and then again five days later. A false-negative result is common after exposure but before symptoms appear, which is why health experts recommend self-isolating for five days before getting a test.
“If after five days of isolation, you have no symptoms, you can come out of isolation, but you have to wear a mask, even at home around other people, for at least another five days in the home setting,” Tan says. “In public, everybody should be wearing masks. That should not make a difference. If it’s not possible to wear a mask, then you need to isolate for 10 days.”
For more information, visit Chicago Parent’s guide to COVID-19.
Follow Chicago Parent on Instagram.