Patrons dine at Fine & Dandy at the District at Eastover in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is sweeping through the nation, forcing many families to rethink holiday plans and even closing down many schools and workplaces.

Earlier this month, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 omicron variant in the state in a fully vaccinated individual who recently traveled to New York.

Mississippi Today recently spoke with Dr. Paul Byers, the state health department’s chief epidemiologist, to learn more about the variant and how to take precautions during the holiday season.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mississippi Today: Will you walk us through what we do and what we do not know yet about the omicron variant?

Dr. Paul Byers: Over the past year, we’ve seen new variant strains of the COVID-19 virus that have emerged with omicron being the latest one. What we know about it so far is that it looks like it is likely more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19 that we dealt with back in 2020. We don’t know yet how much more infectious it may be than the Delta variant. We do know that it looks like the vaccine is likely protective against severe complications, hospitalizations and deaths that can occur from the omicron variant. Certainly, people who’ve been infected previously, and then were fully vaccinated, likely have more protection, and that’s very similar to what we’ve seen with the other variant strains that have emerged over the last year. 

We don’t know, ultimately, how effective the vaccine will be at preventing infection. We don’t know whether or not it will be resistant to some of the treatments that are out there, specifically things like the monoclonal antibodies, and we don’t know the severity of illness. So far, it’s looking like it may be causing a less severe illness than the delta variant. We’re still very early in the game on this one. We’re in the process of learning more and more about omicron on a daily basis. And so I think these next couple of weeks will tell us a whole lot more. But there are still some things that we know are the basics, and the basics are the basics.

The best way to prevent infection, transmission, and the complications from omicron are the same kinds of things that we’ve been doing this whole time. It starts with vaccination. Make sure you’re fully vaccinated. Make sure that you get a booster vaccine if you’re eligible. We know that now getting the booster vaccine is only going to help when it comes to omicron and other variants. We know that wearing a mask in indoor public settings is a good idea to not only protect yourself, but to protect those folks around you. We’re still seeing very high transmission or substantial transmission in the majority of the state right now. The other thing that we do know is that right now in Mississippi, virtually 100% of what we’re seeing being transmitted in the state is still delta. So we are still in the midst of delta transmission in Mississippi right now, although we need to watch omicron closely.

Mississippi Today: What recommendations would you have for folks as they’re maybe reevaluating their plans for the holiday season in response to the emergence of this new variant?

Byers: A lot of it’s gonna depend on what activities you do. Outdoor gatherings are safer than indoors, especially with groups that don’t normally gather together. If you go out to a big event, make sure that you’re wearing a mask in that indoor setting. Think about whether or not you need to attend that big event. In family groups, especially if there are folks in your family who are vulnerable, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated, go ahead and start that process. Rethink whether or not you need to be around those vulnerable family members if you may put them at risk. I think that we can do things safely. We just need to think about all we’ve all been through. The recommendations really haven’t changed that much from where we started. 

Mississippi Today: Throughout the past two years, we’ve talked a lot about COVID fatigue, but it appears like it’s even more astute recently, with more talking and acting as if we’re in a post COVID world. What do you think about this shift in attitudes?

Byers: We know that everybody’s tired. And we know that we all want to go back to normal as much as we can and interact with our friends and families, especially over the holidays. We are still in the middle of significant transmission of COVID-19 in the state and although we’ve had some decline in our deaths recently, we are starting to see our case numbers go back up. And when we see our case number go up, typically we will start to see more hospitalizations and more deaths as a result of the increased numbers of cases. And with the holidays coming up, we do anticipate that we will see those increases both during and after the holidays.

We are not out of the woods yet. Things have gotten better than they were in the previous couple months, but again, we’re still seeing a lot of transmission. In Mississippi and in the United States, we may be done with COVID, but it’s not done with us yet. And I think we’ve just got to stay the course because really it’s all about saving lives.


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Will Stribling covers healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.