The omicron variant’s arrival in El Paso has brought the all-too-familiar questions of how to balance risk and quality of life in uncertain times.

While there are still unanswered questions about this new COVID-19 variant, there is much we do know that can help us make informed decisions for staying safe and protecting our loved ones. And infectious disease experts say there is some cause for optimism, too.

What is the omicron variant?

Designated by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” that posed “very high” global risks on Nov. 26, omicron has since spread rapidly throughout the world. In the United States, more than 1 million new cases were reported Monday, with the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that omicron made up about 95% of new cases nationwide as of January 1.

Case numbers have spiked in El Paso as well, exceeding 1,000 new cases on Wednesday, with city officials confirming omicron cases locally from COVID tests conducted Dec. 21 and 22.

El Paso’s current surge in COVID-19 cases is likely being driven by the omicron variant, according to infectious disease specialist Dr. Ogechika Alozie. He said that given the variant’s doubling time of two to three days, it probably makes up somewhere between 30% and 60% of new cases locally.

“Today we have 1,000-plus (daily) cases. My expectation is that we’ll blow through 2,000 potentially by next week, and that was our high in 2020,” Alozie said. “We’re just at a space where omicron is here. People may or may not decide to change their behavior because of it, and I think that’s a good conversation to have.”

How is omicron different from previous variants?

The omicron variant is more easily transmissible than previous variants. It is 3.2 times more likely to cause infection in a member of an infected person’s household than the delta variant, according to a British research study. But it is also less virulent than previous strains of COVID-19, meaning it is less likely to cause severe illness and hospitalization.

Current numbers in El Paso bear this out, with hospitalizations far lower than they were the last time our community had daily case counts exceeding 1,000.

“Omicron doesn’t replicate in the lungs as well as (other previous variants), it’s more upper airway, (so) it causes less damage to the lungs that can put you in the hospital,” Alozie said.

Alozie said the usefulness of COVID-19 case counts as a measure of social impact has diminished as community levels of immunity have increased.

“In other words, what does it mean if we have 1,000 cases and none of them have to go to the hospital, right?”

Prominent symptoms of the omicron variant tend to be cough, congestion, runny nose and fatigue, while it’s less common to experience loss of one’s sense of smell and taste than in other variants, NBC News reported.

How important is the booster shot?

As more information has emerged about the increased transmissibility of the omicron variant, so has increased attention on the importance of getting a booster shot.

A Danish research study found that a booster shot of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine significantly increases protection against the omicron variant. That study also found that two doses of the vaccine offers less protection against infection with omicron than other variants, which diminishes over time: 55.2% protection with Pfizer and 36.7% protection with Moderna.

Although El Paso has had a high rate of vaccination, when it comes to boosters we have not kept up with the national average. While approximately 35% of Americans have received their booster shot, only 23.5% of El Pasoans above 16 years of age have, as of Jan. 3.

In the context of omicron, even the definition of vaccination status is shifting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidance on Wednesday encouraging Americans to “stay up to date” with vaccines, while expanding booster shot eligibility for 12 to 17-year-olds for those who received the Pfizer vaccine series.

“If you’re trying to reduce your ability to get infected, absolutely get a booster,” Alozie said.

A child received a COVID-19 vaccination at a clinic offered by The Hospitals of Providence on Nov. 3. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

How prepared are local hospitals?

Even though the omicron variant is less likely to result in severe illness, if enough people get it, it could still result in an increase of hospitalizations.

But hospital leaders say that the tools to prevent serious illness and death from COVID-19 continue to improve, as do hospitals’ preparedness for how to respond to increased cases.

“The monoclonal antibody infusion treatment has proven to be very effective in reducing symptoms or the need for hospitalization for those COVID-19 patients who are immunocompromised or are not fully vaccinated,” said Monique Poessiger, spokesperson for The Hospitals of Providence. “In the coming weeks, we anticipate having additional new treatment therapies we will transition to, to aid in our response.”

There are contingency plans in place for expanding bed capacity if needed, she said.

At University Medical Center, spokesperson Ryan Mielke said that although the hospital is very busy, it is not at the same level of COVID-19 care as last winter.

“As of today, the majority of our rooms are being used for hundreds of non-COVID-19 cases,” Mielke said. He described UMC’s COVID-19 contingency plan as “robust and thoughtful,” and noted that the hospital continues to see growth in the amount of unvaccinated patients who experience serious illness from COVID-19.

Las Palmas Del Sol Healthcare did not respond to a request for comment.

Two new antiviral medications for treating COVID-19 have recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and may soon arrive in the El Paso area.

The Hospitals of Providence expects to receive a shipment of the antiviral pills from the state in the coming weeks, Poessiger said.

How can you protect yourself and your loved ones?

Hospital leaders and city officials urge the public to stay up to date with vaccinations and get the booster shot to protect against new COVID-19 variants. El Paso’s COVID vaccine website has information to register for the vaccine or booster.

Additionally, Mielke urges El Pasoans to not delay other medical care out of fear of COVID-19.

“We continue to see patients come to us after having delayed care during the pandemic, and this has resulted in more acute conditions of illness, such as cardiac care, neuro care, cancer screenings and more,” he said.

El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino said El Pasoans should continue to use the COVID-19 response staples: social distancing, masks and hand-washing.

Overall, it’s important to make decisions based on your level of risk, Alozie said. 

“Do you live with somebody that’s vulnerable? Do you live with somebody who has multiple medical conditions? Then I think it’s important for you, at least for the next two to four weeks, to sort of change your behavior a little bit,” he said.

If you think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, sign up to get tested here.

Cover photo: Vehicles wait in line at the City of El Paso’s COVID testing site at UTEP. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.