The new year has ushered in a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, one dominated by the latest variant, omicron, which is spreading faster than any other version of the virus to date.

Although Mainers have been adapting to the latest public health recommendations since March 2020, some recent changes have generated uncertainty and confusion. We’ll try to answer some of the most common questions here.

Q: How is omicron different from any other version of the virus that’s been in our lives for nearly two years?

A: Perhaps the biggest difference with omicron is how easily transmissible this variant is. When delta became the dominant strain of coronavirus this summer, it was said to be far more contagious than previous versions. And omicron is far more transmissible than delta.

Omicron also appears to be more adept at producing breakthrough infections among those who are fully vaccinated, and even those who have gotten booster shots. However, the risk of serious illness or death is dramatically lower for those who are vaccinated and boosted.

On the positive side, there is some data that suggest – albeit not conclusively – that omicron is a milder strain than delta. Even if that proves true, because it’s so highly transmissible, it will still lead to a lot of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks ahead.

Q: If omicron is spreading so rapidly, including among those who are vaccinated, does that mean vaccinations aren’t working?

A: No. The primary purpose of vaccines is to train the body to fight off a virus. Overwhelming research has shown that people who are fully vaccinated, and boosted when appropriate, are not getting as sick, even from the omicron.

“If anything, the undiscussed story of the pandemic is just how good the vaccines work at what they were designed to do: keep people alive, keep them out of the hospital, keep them off a ventilator,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah said this week.

Additionally, even if a fully vaccinated person contracts omicron, the science has shown that they pass along less virus for a shorter period of time to others. Research also suggests that the risk of developing “long COVID” is significantly lessened for those who are vaccinated.

Q: When do I know to get tested and how do I find a test?

A: At this stage of the pandemic, testing has become a headache for many. Unprecedented demand has made finding a test – both at a pharmacy or health care setting and the rapid at-home varieties – extremely challenging.

States and the federal government are hoping supply ramps up, and the Biden administration is soon going to send one billion tests directly to homes and health care settings, but that’s still days or even weeks away.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that her administration has purchased 250,000 rapid tests that it plans to distribute to Walgreens pharmacies, health care sites, schools and congregate care settings. Those tests will be free. Mills said she’s also “looking at options to distribute tests directly to Maine people.”

Some testing sites are more likely to offer tests to people who are symptomatic, but health experts are advising that anyone who develops symptoms and cannot get tested should isolate for at least five days.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has said that rapid at-home tests may not be as accurate at detecting omicron, although false positives are still rare if the test is taken correctly. Shah said people should consider using the swab in their throats rather than their noses.

People should not rely on at-home tests to shorten the length of quarantine – anyone who takes a rapid test on day five that comes back positive should continue isolating.

Those who have been exposed but haven’t been tested should wear masks in public or indoor settings. Masks are recommended in all public indoor settings because of the high levels of transmission statewide. Close contacts of an infected person are advised to quarantine for five days.

Q: Given how easily omicron has been spreading, should I consider changing the type of mask I use?

A: Some health experts have suggested that people might benefit from upgrading their masks, especially those who have been wearing primarily cloth masks.

Surgical masks, as well as N-95 and KN-95 masks, are more effective, but they were difficult to find early in the pandemic, which is why cloth masks became popular. Those masks are more readily available now, but they can be cost prohibitive because they are disposable.

Shah said just because surgical or other masks might work better doesn’t mean cloth masks are useless. He said as long as they are thick enough so light doesn’t pass through and they fit well, they will provide protection.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, masks work best when they are worn properly (over the nose) and when there is widespread compliance.

Q: What do I do if I test positive?

A: The U.S. CDC recently updated its guidelines for how long people should isolate if they test positive. The length of time has been reduced from 10 days to five, although people should be vigilant about wearing a mask around others for five additional days.

Some have questioned whether the relaxed rules are prudent given how easily omicron spreads, but Shah said he supports the change.

“Based on the scientific underpinnings of this, what we see is that the bulk of transmission of COVID-19 occurs on the two days before you have symptoms and then the three to four to five days after you develop symptoms,” he said. “That was the rationale … to slim down the days of isolation from 10 days to five days.”

Q: Why did the state relax rules for schools at the same time the risk of outbreaks is going up?

A: In short, the state updated its quarantine and isolation guidelines for schools to be in line with the new U.S. CDC guidance. But it was also an acknowledgement that the spread of omicron could be disruptive, and there is a strong interest in keeping schools open.

State education Commissioner Pender Makin said this week that schools are facing “unfathomable challenges” in dealing with the rapid spread of the virus in communities. Indeed, schools across the state are seeing widespread absences, both among students and staff members. The hope is that the shorter quarantine and isolation guidelines will make it easier to keep schools open.

Q: Is it possible that omicron will help get us closer to herd immunity?

A: One of the possible silver linings about the rise of omicron is that it might produce so much immunity that the virus could fizzle out entirely. Since the pandemic began, experts have discussed herd immunity as a means of getting past this. There was hope that the vaccines might achieve that goal, but it hasn’t happened, largely because many parts of the world still don’t have access and because vaccine hesitancy remains widespread.

Shah, who has been careful not to engage in any kind of predictions, said there is certainly some hope that omicron will lead to a massive spike of mostly mild cases before receding, but he’s not ready to bet on it.

“The modern history of COVID has been marked by individuals who made predictions … based on hope, and (who) have turned out to be wrong,” he said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: