5 Questions: Roshni Mathew, MD, on the Omicron Variant and Winter Season

As we get closer to winter break and the holidays, news of the Omicron COVID-19 variant may have some parents second guessing their plans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expanded its recommendations for COVID-19 booster shots to 16- and 17-year-olds as initial data suggests boosters can further protect people against Omicron and other variants. But, every day, scientists are still learning more about how Omicron affects people. Roshni Mathew, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and co-medical director of infection prevention and control at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, answers some of the top questions families have about the new variant.

What is different about Omicron?

There’s a lot we do not know about the new Omicron variant, but we do know the structure of the virus has changed in specific areas. It’s a Variant of Concern because of the mutations that have occurred in the spike protein. The spike protein was used as the basis for existing vaccines to help the body recognize the virus and generate immune responses. Scientists are currently working on figuring out how much protection vaccination or prior infection still provides given that these changes have happened.

Is it affecting children more than previous variants?

There is still so much that we don’t know yet about Omicron, like its effects on children or if it’s affecting specific populations differently than other variants. But this is still the same virus, so we encourage parents to protect their child 5 years and older by getting them a COVID-19 vaccine.

Nurse administering COVID vaccine
The CDC says the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and general prevention strategies to protect against COVID-19.

Should immunocompromised children get an additional dose of vaccine?

A third dose or additional dose is given to immunocompromised patients for whom the original one or two dose series is insufficient to generate an adequate immune response.  Currently, children who are 12 and over and who are immunocompromised qualify for a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine 28 days after their second dose. Children 5-11 years who are immunocompromised should get their 2-dose Pfizer vaccine series as soon as possible. This is a dynamic situation, so it’s important to follow what is currently approved for children and check in with credible sources, like your pediatrician or the CDC.

How can families best protect themselves and their children, especially during holiday gatherings?

We can still use all of those now-common-sense measures like hand hygiene, masking, and maintaining physical distancing particularly in indoor spaces. Those are still protective. Obviously, there are very young children who can’t mask, or who won’t be able to follow all of these interventions, but that’s where everyone else can protect that young child by being vaccinated if they are eligible.

According to the CDC, new variants of the virus are expected to occur. Taking measures to reduce the spread of infection, including getting a COVID-19 vaccine, are the best ways to slow the emergence of new variants.

Why are COVID vaccines so important?

While children have not been as badly affected as the elderly, we still know there have been many children who have had serious illness and, unfortunately, over 600 children in the United States have died from COVID. Children can also experience serious complications such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Although long COVID is more commonly described in adults, it can also happen in children.

Vaccines help multiple aspects of our immune system to respond, so there is still hope that there will be cross-protection from existing vaccines against different mutations or variants. The point to remember is that vaccination is safe, effective, but also, very importantly, we know it protects against serious illness and death if we are exposed to infection or get infected.

As we learn more about this variant, we must not panic and – keep doing what has protected you this holiday and winter season.

Find out more information about how to schedule a COVID vaccine appointment: covidvaccine.stanfordchildrens.org


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