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 increasing research that suggests 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.

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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 last 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: The Biden Administration is making 1 billion at-home tests available for free. How can I get them?

A: Last week, the administration launched a website, COVIDTests.gov, where people can sign up to get four test kits delivered to their home. The only information needed is a name and home address, as well as an email to get updates on delivery. Kits will be delivered beginning in late January and will take between  seven and 12 days to arrive, officials have said.

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Insurance companies also are now required to reimburse members for at-home test kits, although the process varies depending on the provider.

Q: As at-home COVID test have increased in availability, many people wonder about their accuracy. How accurate are at-home tests?

A: Health experts have said that at-home antigen tests – when conducted correctly – can be almost as accurate as PCR tests that are conducted in pharmacies and health care settings. Because the omicron variant tends to live more in the throat than the nose, some officials have recommended swabbing your throat.

However, at-home tests are less sensitive and have proven to be more effective when someone has symptoms or when they have a high viral load. That means they are more likely to return a false negative for someone who is infected but hasn’t developed symptoms.

PCR tests can detect smaller amounts of COVID’s genetic material and therefore can find positive cases more easily among those who are asymptomatic.

Additionally, at-home tests are a better option for those who want to take a test to see if they are no longer infectious. PCR tests can still come back positive after the contagious period.

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

A: The U.S. CDC has updated its guidance to recommend either surgical masks or N-95 or KN-95 masks, for those who are able to wear them consistently.

Early in the pandemic, there was concern about supplies of disposable masks, which is one of the reasons cloth masks became popular. Supply is less of a concern now, although buying disposable masks can be cost-prohibitive for some and the market is flooded with counterfeit masks that don’t provide the same level of protection.

Although recent studies have shown that cloth masks are less effective, especially against the omicron variant, that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Shah has said that as long as cloth masks 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?

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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 acknowledgment that the spread of omicron could be disruptive, and there is a strong interest in keeping schools open.

State education Commissioner Pender Makin said last 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.

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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.

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