Osterholm on what we know about omicron — and another pandemic winter

Michael Osterholm, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz
Michael Osterholm speaks at a press conference in April 2020 with Gov. Tim Walz.
Glen Stubbe | AP 2020

There's still a lot we don't know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus. We know it's been found in at least 16 states now. Minnesota was one of the first to report a case of the variant last week. But researchers are still not sure if it will make people sicker than the delta variant.

Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, joined host Cathy Wurzer to discuss. He said the evidence so far suggests omicron may be more transmissible than delta, but it might not make people as sick — perhaps due to genetic information that omicron picked up from another virus that causes the common cold in humans.

“If a lot of people get [omicron] but it's not causing — on a whole — severe illness across the population, this would be incredibly good news,” Osterholm said.

In an ideal world, omicron might even outcompete delta, infecting more people with a milder illness and leaving them with additional protection against SARS-CoV-2, Osterholm added.

“That could be Mother Nature’s way of helping us out of this pandemic,” Osterholm said. “But at this point, again, that's all just hypothetical.”

According to Osterholm, the emergence of omicron underlines the importance of vaccine equity. He said that President Joe Biden’s administration is taking action to support vaccination campaigns around the world.

As people gather for the holidays, Osterholm urged listeners not to let up on pandemic precautions, no matter how tired of the pandemic they may be.

“I think a family event where everyone is fully vaccinated, and, to add an additional layer of protection, using the rapid test in the morning before that family event to make sure everybody's negative — then celebrate the holidays, and have just a great time,” Osterholm said. “But if you don't do that, just know you may be the one individual who creates an outbreak.”

“The most important message … listeners can take away from today's discussion: Please get vaccinated if you haven't been, as soon as possible,” Osterholm said. “And for those who are eligible for boosters, get them.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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