Since March of 2020, the scientific community has been in constant motion trying to research and respond swiftly to the ever-evolving learnings about coronavirus. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the news reported effective vaccines had been developed to help prevent its spread. Many of us also felt better when the booster was announced to add an extra layer of protection. Then… the virus mutated, and variants emerged.
Variants emerged, which is normal, expected "behavior" for viruses, but the one that took center stage near the end of 2021, was the omicron variant. It was identified as “a variant of concern” by the World Health Organization—because it could “cause an increase in transmission, change in the disease presentation or decrease in the known diagnostic tools, therapies or vaccines for the virus.” Soon it became headline news as it resulted in record numbers of positive cases.
Starting in the spring of 2020 when nearly the entire world essentially locked down, if you tested positive for COVID-19, you were expected to quarantine for 14 days, even if you were asymptomatic. Going “back to work” (if you worked outside of your home) was out of the question and it was recommended that you isolate yourself from those you lived with, including close family members. Many areas made travelers quarantine for this period of time regardless of their test results, just to be on the safe side.
Slowly, but surely after the advent of the vaccines, the rules began to relax across the world. We no longer had to wear masks outside in the U.S., businesses reopened, kids went back to school and a percentage of people in “non-essential” jobs returned to work in offices and retail spaces.
But the virus didn’t stop spreading or disappear into thin air. It continued to evolve, and the first mutation to cause sufficient buzz was the Delta variant. By the summer of 2021, it accounted for over 99% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S.—meaning, nearly all of them. It was thought to be twice as contagious as other variants and result in more hospitalizations, especially for those who had not been vaccinated. Its symptoms were also slightly different than the original virus, not usually resulting in the loss of taste or smell, but behaving more like a severe flu with fever, headache, sore throat and runny nose.
When Omicron appeared in the U.S. in November of 2021, traced first to California via a traveler from South Africa, we began hearing more and more about “breakthrough cases,” specifically those who had contracted COVID-19 after being vaccinated and receiving their last dose 14 days before testing positive for the virus, as well as those who were also boosted (like me), yet still tested positive for the virus. Waning immunity and reinfections for those who had previously had COVID-19 and perhaps were less careful about taking additional precautions, possibly contributed to these high number of cases.
But there were also those who did everything “correctly” and still became infected—and that’s just the reality of vaccines never being 100% effective, though many who are anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitant are now even more convinced that vaccines are unnecessary or even harmful to our bodies.
Monitoring and Testing Today
We have entered into a phase many are calling “living with COVID” as mask mandates have lifted and the CDC somewhat controversially changed their guidance on quarantine and isolation. The recommendation is now for those who test positive to quarantine for 5 days and follow that with 5 days of masking, assuming that the patient has been fever-free for at least 24 hours and other symptoms have resolved. In addition, the federal government has made at-home tests free and accessible for U.S. residents to order online.
The CDC recommends self-testing if you have symptoms or within 5 days of when you were knowingly exposed to the virus, or before you go to an indoor gathering, especially if there will be immunocompromised and/or unvaccinated people present. Though the at-home tests will detect current infections, they will not measure your level of immunity or detect antibodies from a previous infection.
Only time will tell if these new ways of navigating this highly infectious disease will prove effective or if additional variants will require us to pivot back to stricter measures to avoid more outbreaks.
Has your confidence in vaccines waned since the Omicron variant appeared? Share your thoughts in the comments section.