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Everything You Need to Know About the Covid-19 Omicron Variant

Just like Delta, another new coronavirus variant has quickly swept the globe. And naturally, it has most of us feeling a little extra concerned about the impact it may have on our lives – and our businesses.

As scientists worldwide race to learn more about Omicron, we break down what’s known about the variant so far, and how it could impact the hospitality industry.

What is Omicron?

Omicron is the latest strain of the coronavirus to be designated a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO). A Variant of Concern is a variant that shows evidence of:

  • An increase in its ability to spread;
  • An increase in its ability to cause more severe disease, like hospitalizations and death;
  • A significant decrease in ability to be fought off by current vaccines or antibodies from past COVID-19 infection; 
  • Reduced ability to be treated by existing treatments; OR
  • An ability to go undetected by diagnostics, like PCR and rapid at-home tests

Like its predecessors (think Alpha, Beta, and Delta variants), Omicron gets its name from a letter in the Greek alphabet. Check Merriam-Webster, and you’ll find two ways to pronounce it — aa-muh-kraan or o-muh-kraan.

First identified in Botswana and South Africa, Omicron made its detection debut in the U.S. on December 1. It has since been detected in nearly two dozen states and 40-plus countries worldwide.

What we know, and don’t know, about Omicron right now

Given that Omicron is less than a month old, there's a lot that remains to be learned. Scientists need time to monitor and track the variant. But we’re expected to have more answers in the coming weeks. Here’s what we know so far.

The Omicron variant likely spreads more easily than earlier variants. It’s currently impossible to know definitively, but the surge of cases in South Africa suggests it’s spreading faster than Delta. Last month, Omicron accounted for 74% of the 249 virus genomes sequenced in South Africa, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

However, scientists caution that it’s still too early to say whether Omicron will prove as dangerous as Delta. And in the U.S., Delta currently remains the dominant circulating variant.

Based on preliminary data, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that “thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity”. But again, he warned that more research is needed to know for sure if Omicron infections, including reinfections and breakthrough infections, cause more severe illness or death. Initial reported infections out of South Africa were among younger individuals who generally tend to have milder illness, says WHO, and understanding the level of severity of Omicron may take several weeks.

Like with other variants, vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness. But breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are expected from Omicron. This remains most worrisome for more vulnerable populations, like the elderly, who have seen more severe breakthrough cases from the Delta variant. 

Preliminary research shows two doses of the Pfizer vaccine may not provide adequate protection against Omicron, but protection improves with three doses, said Pfizer/BioNTech in a news release on Wednesday. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC that the companies will have enough data by the end of the month to determine whether a booster dose is enough to fight Omicron or if a fourth vaccine is needed. Both Moderna and Pfizer are working on new vaccines to target the Omicron variant in the event that lab tests show significant declines in protection against severe disease with booster shots alone.

What to do in the face of Omicron

While there’s much we don’t yet know, the message continues to be the same: “Vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission, and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging,” says the CDC. 

The CDC encourages all vaccinated people ages 16 years and older to get the booster shot (at least two months after a J&J vaccine or six months after the second Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shot), and warns that all unvaccinated people remain at increased risk for infection, illness, and death. 

You’re encouraged to continue utilizing other safety measures, too, like masking, social distancing, and testing. Yet, if you’re vaccinated, many experts say you can reasonably behave as you were, while using extra caution when gathering in groups or high-risk settings. “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," President Biden recently told reporters at the White House.

The advice is subject to change as we learn more. And people who are more vulnerable should continue taking diligent safety measures, like asking everyone to get tested before gathering. 

What Omicron could mean for the hospitality industry

So what does this all mean for the hospitality industry? While only time will tell, if we look to Delta, we may find some answers. 

After a few, bright summer months of dining rooms returning to full capacity and restaurants resuming some semblance of normalcy, then came the Delta variant. And with it, another injury to the industry ensued. According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, six in 10 adults said Delta caused them to change their restaurant habits, whether pushing them to cancel plans, move outdoors, opt for delivery, or completely stop going to restaurants altogether. Now, many are wondering if Omicron will have the same effect. 

“With every variant, it makes folks more nervous to go out,” says Ben Fileccia, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association’s director of operations and strategy. “It’s about consumer confidence – if guests aren’t confident to go out and dine safely, it’s definitely going to affect restaurants.”

Most health and restaurant experts don’t anticipate another full-on shutdown. Yet, they do foresee more places amping up safety measures, like requiring masks and proof of vaccination – a way to make some diners, and staff, feel more confident. But it’s tricky – in the current divisive climate, you have to know your audience. According to the National Restaurant Association’s survey, while 33% of adults said a vaccine requirement would make them more likely to dine indoors, 32% said a mandate would make them less likely to go to a restaurant. 

So far, no new federal restrictions have been put in place on indoor dining due to Omicron. But the variant likely plays a role in New York City’s vaccine mandate expansion, now requiring all private-sector workers to get vaccinated. “We’ve got Omicron as a new factor. We’ve got the colder weather which is going to really create additional challenges with the Delta variant, we’ve got holiday gatherings," said Mayor Bill de Blasio in announcing the mandate.

Several cities already have local indoor dining measures in place, like L.A. and New Orleans, where guests have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to dine inside. Nationwide, many restaurants are choosing to enact similar safety regulations on their own.

“I don’t really see any new state-mandated restrictions for restaurants going forward, but where Omicron is likely to play into effect is on travel and tourism,” says Fileccia. “That’s something we’re definitely going to keep an eye on, because a conference that cancels or goes remote definitely hurts the bottom line of the surrounding restaurants.”

As with most of this pandemic, Fileccia notes that there will always be patrons who continue to dine out. But even small decreases make an impact.

“As much as this industry has suffered – it’s going to take years and years for restaurant operators to recover – any decline in guests is going to hurt,” says Fileccia.

Sean Kennedy, the National Restaurant Association’s executive vice president of public affairs, adds, “Until Congress moves to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, every new variant that could impact how consumers use restaurants threatens to push thousands closer to closing permanently.”

Photo by Thirdman on Pexels

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