COVID-19

The omicron variant of COVID-19 began to make its way through the nation last month, with most states, including New Hampshire, now reporting cases of the strain.

And while much about the variant is still unknown, early data suggest there is a small slice of hope in that illness from the highly contagious strain could be mild for those who’ve been vaccinated, especially in those also boosted.

“All we can do at this point is speculate,” said Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, “because [COVID-19] has thrown curve balls at us every time we try and predict its course.”

If omicron ends up becoming the dominant strain and the illness caused by it is found to be milder, Khole said cases will likely still climb, but could result in fewer hospitalizations and deaths. This would be critical at a time when hospitals locally and nationwide are overwhelmed with COVID-19 inpatients.

Cheshire Medical saw its highest number of COVID inpatients to date last week, and has had to expand its intensive care capabilities and prepare to transfer staff from outpatient to inpatient care due to the rise.

If omicron follows a similar path in the United States to what happened in South Africa, where the strain was first identified, there could be a spike in the variant before it quickly fades away.

The variant was initially detected there the day before Thanksgiving, and cases linked to the strain are already falling. The number of new cases dropped by nearly 36 percent last week in South Africa from their peak the week prior, according to various national news reports.

In the Monadnock Region, the delta variant remains dominant, according to Khole.

As of Wednesday, only 13 cases of omicron had been identified in New Hampshire, data from the state health department show. However, that case total could be higher since, according to the state, genetic sequencing for variants is conducted on about 25 percent of test specimens.

If omicron becomes even more prevalent in America, there could be a silver lining, though it’s far from guaranteed and could come with a cost, according to Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

“It’s possible that it could spread so widely that, whether through vaccination or natural omicron infection, that we do achieve something close to herd immunity,” he said.

In turn, this could help lead the country into an endemic stage, meaning the virus would circulate indefinitely, but with lower and more predictable case numbers because it will have fewer opportunities for transmission.

The switch from pandemic to endemic would be similar to influenza, where annual booster shots are encouraged to protect against illness but otherwise, no action is needed to combat it.

“This could be the first step to COVID becoming endemic, and ... variants henceforth [could] be of the milder version or it [could] run its course so that we will all get it and gain immunity,” Khole said.

But there are some big “ifs.”

It’s not known yet whether illness caused by omicron is more severe for unvaccinated people, though that has been the case for other strains.

Because of this, Schaffner said omicron could still leave a lot of unvaccinated individuals sick. The same goes for those with underlying illnesses, and those who are immunocompromised, are elderly, or are children who aren’t eligible yet for a vaccine.

And it’s unclear how long natural immunity gained from an omicron infection would last, which is why getting vaccinated and boosted is still the best way to protect yourself and others against omicron and other variants of the novel coronavirus, health experts say.

Khole said his worry is that the vaccination rates in the Monadnock Region and New Hampshire will remain low. This could mean that hospitals stay full and more deaths continue.

“Even if this is a step toward the end,” he said, “the damage on the way is what concerns me most ...”

To schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, visit your local pharmacy’s website or book through the state’s at vaccines.nh.gov or by calling its hotline at 2-1-1.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.

Olivia Belanger is the health reporter for The Sentinel, covering issues from the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic to mental health services in the region. A N.H. native, she joined The Sentinel team in August 2019.