Keeping on top of COVID-19 and the impact on your health care environment is a never-ending task. With variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continuing to threaten both patient health and hospital capacity, we know the importance of providing up-to-date information.
The CDC actively monitors all coronavirus variants to make recommendations about the classification of variants (variant of concern, variant of interest, and variants being monitored). Some are considered variants of interest: based on how easily they spread, how severe symptoms are, and how they get treated. High-consequence variants can lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and even death, making it critical to increase patient understanding.
Even as COVID-19 cases level off, the vast majority of people hospitalized or dying today from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.8 That makes vaccination conversations crucial. Patients look to you and your staff as a source of truth. Here are some commonly asked questions to keep your patients informed about the COVID-19 variants and revisiting vaccination.
How do variants emerge?
Viruses constantly change to adapt and survive, and variants emerge when a strain has one or more mutations that differ from others. Mutations occur in the process called replication: copying errors during the transcription of viral RNA result in changes to the genetic material.1 When these mutations get passed down, the altered virus is called a variant.
Mutations occur often and for no particular reason – some new variants will emerge and disappear, others will persist and become dominant.1 Some mutations allow a virus to evolve into a more robust version of itself, helping it spread significantly faster, causing more severe illness, or becoming resistant to treatment and vaccines.
Pharmaceutical and biomedical companies continuously evolve their strategies to treat and protect against the coronavirus and its variants. Of course, the best way to slow the emergence of dangerous new variants is to reduce the spread of infection in the first place.
What are the dominant COVID-19 variants?
As of March 1, 2022, the current coronavirus variants of concern are omicron and delta.2 Like other variants, omicron has a higher resistance to antibody resistance—whether from monoclonal antibody treatments or antibodies generated by previous COVID-19 infection or vaccination.
Omicron (BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2)
The omicron variant spreads more easily than the original virus and the delta variant, but it may cause less severe illness.2 Vaccinated and boosted people may have a breakthrough infection, but vaccines are effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death.
The delta variant may spread more easily than other variants and may cause more severe illness.2
Do existing COVID-19 vaccines protect against the variants?
COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection, serious illness, and death from COVID-19.3 While approved COVID-19 vaccines work against the above-mentioned variants, their efficacy is being closely monitored as new variants arise.4
Your annual flu shot is a good example of how vaccines protect against multiple strains. The flu virus indeed mutates much more frequently than the coronavirus, leading scientists to redesign the flu vaccine each year based on what research determines will be the most common strain.5 But even if the exact flu strain isn’t targeted by the season’s shot, it can effectively reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to the flu.5
Are COVID-19 vaccine boosters needed to protect against the variants?
Yes. The CDC advises a booster dose for all three vaccines.7 Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine 5 months after the last dose of their primary series. Adults 18 and older who got the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine should also get a booster dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine at least 2 months after their initial vaccine dose. Teens ages 12 to 17 should get a Pfizer-BioNTech booster 5 months after the last dose of their primary series.
Notably, the majority of COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths reported today are among unvaccinated people.3 You can follow updates regarding COVID-19 booster shots from the CDC website.
What are other health and safety precautions that need to get followed?
While the vaccines remain effective to reduce symptoms and severity, masks help reduce the actual spread of COVID-19 and its variants. For patients with a weakened immune system–from age or an underlying medical condition–or who are unvaccinated, masks are critical to avoid the severity of COVID-19.4 Maintaining distance and frequent and thorough handwashing also get recommended for vulnerable populations.
If you are in an area with a high COVID-19 Community Level, reinforce with your patients to wear a mask indoors in public, even if they are fully vaccinated. This is true for anyone age 2 or older. Encourage them to be aware of their Community Level.6
1 SARS-CoV-2 Variant Classifications and Definitions. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-classifications.html. Updated December 1, 2021. Accessed March 10, 2022.
2 COVID-19: What You Need to Know About Variants. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/about-variants.html Updated February 5, 2022. Accessed March 10, 2022.
3 COVID-19: The Possibility of COVID-19 after Vaccination: Breakthrough Infections. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/effectiveness/why-measure-effectiveness/breakthrough-cases.html. Updated December 17, 2021. Accessed March 10, 2022.
4 COVID-19 Vaccines Work. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/effectiveness/work.html. Updated December 23, 2021. Accessed March 10, 2022.
5 Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/keyfacts.htm. Updated November 18, 2021. Accessed March 10, 2022.
6 COVID-19 by County: Know Your COVID-19 Community Level. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/covid-by-county.html. Updated March 4, 2022. Accessed March 10, 2022.
7 Different COVID-19 Vaccines. CDC Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines.html. Updated January 21, 2022. Accessed March 10, 2022.
8 COVID Data Tracker. CDC Web site. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#covidnet-hospitalizations-vaccination. Updated March 1, 2022. Accessed March 10, 2022.