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Questions with answers about omicron variant from Dr. Petri

Questions poured in for our favorite COVID-19 researcher and clinician, Dr. William Petri, after the news last week about the new omicron variant. As a result, we are doing a second Q&A this week with Dr. Petri. Send your questions to editor Lynne Anderson at, and she will forward them to Dr. Petri.

I’ve been vaccinated and boosted. With omicron on the horizon, what do I do about holiday travel plans? Also, I’d stopped wearing my mask in lots of places, like the gym. Should I wear it again when out in public – say, going to the grocery store? Congratulations on being both vaccinated and boosted! That should provide you 90% protection from infection and severe COVID-19 due to the delta variant. It is however not 100%, so it makes sense to continue to exercise caution by social distancing, wearing masks in indoor public spaces where practical (grocery stores yes, a gym where everyone has been vaccinated no). As far as omicron, it is possible that there will need to be an omicron-specific booster if as feared this variant renders vaccines less effective. Right now with only a few cases identified in the U.S., I would not change travel plans over the holidays. If it is in fact more transmissible than delta, it will still take weeks or months for it to outcompete delta as a major cause of COVID-19, at which time an omnicron-specific booster would likely be ready.

How long might it take to know if the vaccines we already have will work against omicron? And if they aren’t how long will it take to have a vaccine that does? It is already predicted from the large number of mutations on the spike protein of the new coronavirus that vaccines will be less effective than they are for delta. We should know next week just how less effective as the vaccine companies today are testing the anti-Spike antibodies that are produced in people who receive their vaccines to see how well they neutralize the virus in a test tube. Pfizer and Moderna have estimated about 100 days to have a new booster that is omicron-specific.

I’ve heard people who don’t believe in vaccination say that omicron shows why we don’t need a vaccine, that the virus will do what it will do. But it seems to me that people who don’t get vaccinated provide an environment for the virus to continue to mutate. Don’t we have some kind of civic responsibility to get vaccinated? Yes. The more people who are vaccinated the fewer chances for the virus to mutate, since it can only grow and mutate when infecting us. But a bigger reason to get vaccinated in my mind is to protect yourself and your family. This is a terrible disease, with as many as one out of every five patients hospitalized with hypoxia (low oxygen in the blood) passing away from the infection, not to mention the suffering from being ill in the survivors, or the “long-haul” symptoms that can extend for months. I bet the most ardent supporters of vaccination are the nurses, respiratory therapists and hospitalists at UVa who are in the trenches helping our community through the pandemic, and sadly firsthand experiencing the suffering of patients and their families.

I have a 4-y-old granddaughter. I have gotten two Moderna shots and a booster. I feel safe being around her, but her other grandparents have not been vaccinated, and she spends a lot of time with them, too. Could she become infected through them and then also expose me? What should I do here? Mary Ann and I have a two year old granddaughter (with a second on the way this month!), so I can appreciate the joy that you have being with your granddaughter, and the dilemma about possible COVID-19 exposure. It is possible for your granddaughter to have an asymptomatic infection and expose you to COVID-19. The best prevention of course will be for her other grandparents to be vaccinated. This is very important for grandparents, not only to protect their grandchildren, but protect themselves as 80% of the approximately 800,000 deaths due to COVID in the US have been in those of us who are 65 years of age and older. Until they are vaccinated, you could ask if they can avoid contact with your granddaughter if they have any cold or flu symptoms, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

I have heard that the vaccines can impact fertility in males and females. Is there any possibility of this? This at least is one thing that we do not need to worry about! There is good evidence (summarized in the CDC web page and by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine) that the vaccines do not affect fertility, menstrual cycles, miscarriage or sperm quantity and motility.

Please explain the sentence: “One piece of good fortune is that the commonly-used PCR tests detects omicron.” Since the NIH and CDC have publicly admitted the PCR test is faulty and due for a replacement test by January 2022, and given that the “flu” was miscounted as covid-19 in 2020, share the scientific proof and evidence that the omicron-detecting PCR test is different from the currently debunked PCR tests. The PCR test that detects omicron is one of the standard PCR tests for COVID-19 that for reliability purposes amplifies not one, but three separate parts of the new coronavirus genome. One of the mutations in the spike glycoprotein causes one of the three amplifications to fail, as so-called S gene dropout, which is unique to omicron. We are fortunate here in Charlottesville that Dr. Amy Mathers is doing complete viral genome sequencing of every COVID-19 virus, so there is little chance that an omicron variant would slip by unnoticed.

I am confused. We got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine in March. If I understood the recent Veteran’s Administration findings correctly, after 6 months, that vaccine was thought to be only 3% effective. Doesn’t that mean we would need to start all over and get two doses of whichever vaccine? Thank you. No need to start all over again! You should get boosted now if you received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine 2 months or more ago. Boosting raises the protective antibody levels to similar levels to that of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and will protect you throughout the holiday season.

One of my bests friend’s husband was hospitalized with COVID-19. He was not vaccinated, nor is she, her grown children or any of their grandchildren. Her husband was very sick. I asked her if anyone in the family planned to get vaccinated now, and she said no. Do I just drop the matter? Good for you for asking, you clearly have your best friend’s best interests at heart. She is lucky to have you. What I try to do in this situation is to ask “why,” to try to understand the reason behind the decision not to be vaccinated. This sometimes allows me to explain in a non-confrontational way the reason why I did get vaccinated. My hope is that I am planting a seed so to speak, that maybe they will reconsider after some thought. I frankly don’t know how well this works, but the reason I so enjoy answering questions is that education self-empowers individuals to take control of their own health and well-being. And information from a best friend is weighted more heavily than from a professor at UVa!

Holiday travel was back to pre-pandemic levels at thanksgiving. Should we change our travel plans for Christmas and New Year’s with omicron here? If you are vaccinated and boosted, and your children 5 years of age and older are vaccinated, I would not change plans. Should the worst-case scenario happen and omicron both is more transmissible and more vaccine-resistant than delta, we will know this as it happens and can change our plans accordingly. I think we are going to need an omicron booster, but not until this spring at the earliest, but I hope I am wrong!


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