NEWS

How to Keep Your Kids and Family Safe From the Omicron COVID-19 Variant

dad helping child put on their mask

Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • There are still many unknowns when it comes to the Omicron variant and how it might affect children.
  • Parents can rest assured that experts are working diligently to learn more.
  • All of the tools we currently have to keep our kids safe will likely still be effective against Omicron, including masking, vaccines, and testing.

If you are a parent following the news about the Omicron variant, it's likely you're feeling some uneasiness. You may be wondering what this news means for you, your children, and your family. You might have questions about whether Omicron will make your children more ill than other variants have, whether the current vaccines approved for children will still work, and if new or additional safety measures might be necessary.

Since it’s so new, scientists are still trying to understand how it affects aspects of the virus, like illness severity and vaccine effectiveness.

Across the board, though, experts are urging everyone—including parents—not to worry too much right now. Although there are still many unknowns, we are in a much better place than we were when COVID-19 first emerged.

“There is no evidence to justify a panic,” assures Robert Amler, MD, a former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “The new variant is being examined very thoroughly worldwide, and more definitive guidelines should be available soon.”

We connected with several experts in the field to help parents understand what Omicron means for their families, and what the best ways are to keep their children safe as more updated data is gathered.

What Is the Omicron Variant?

The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa on November 9, 2021 and reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24, 2021. Two days later, on November 26th, the WHO designated Omicron as a “Variant of Concern.”

The reason for this designation was that the variant caused a swift uptake in infections in South Africa, indicating that it might be a highly transmissible variant. Not only that, but according to the WHO, this variant has more mutations than other variants, and some of the mutations look worrying.

Robert Amler, MD

There is no evidence to justify a panic.

— Robert Amler, MD

Omicron is present in several countries around the globe, including the United States. As of December 18, 2021, the CDC has identified cases of Omicron in 44 different states. It has also been identified in numerous cases around the world, including the United Kingdom, Israel, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Australia.

Though the current wave in South Africa may indicate that Omicron spreads quickly, more data will be needed to be sure that that’s the case. Importantly, as the CDC points out, the Delta variant is still the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. and is responsible for the current wave of cases here.

Although there are some concerns—and many unknowns—about Omicron, you can take comfort in the fact that scientists are working around the clock trying to understand how Omicron might affect us all.

As Alicia Zhou, PhD, biologist and chief science officer at Color, explains, “The global scientific community is working quickly to understand it, but much of the data is still emerging.”

How Does the Omicron Variant Differ From Other Variants?

So far, scientists are still gathering data about Omicron, so it’s not possible to say in a definitive way how Omicron will differ from other variants. However, one assumption that many experts are feeling confident in is that it will be quite contagious, maybe more so than other variants that have emerged.

The CDC predicts that Omicron will at least be more transmissible than the original version of COVID-19, but hasn’t predicted how it might compare to other known variants.

Omicron vs. Delta

Again, there are no concrete answers right now. The Delta variant is currently the most prominent variant in the United States, but it remains to be seen if Omicron will be more contagious, or outpace it.

Dr. Almer predicts that Omicron might end up being more contagious than Delta. “We can presume it is more infectious than the delta variant because it appears to have crowded out the other variants in at least some settings,” he says. “We also can presume it is more prevalent than currently reported.”

It is unclear whether Omicron will cause more severe illness than other variants, and it’s also not entirely clear how well our current vaccines will work against it. As of December 18, 2021, the CDC predicts that even if our current vaccines don’t fully protect against breakthrough infections of Omicron, they will at least protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and death.

How Does the Omicron Variant Affect Kids?

As a parent, probably the top question on your mind right now is how omicron might affect your child should they become infected with it. As we saw over the summer, the delta variant caused a major spike in infections among children, including an increase in hospitalizations.

Unfortunately, right now, there is just not enough information about omicron to predict how omicron might affect children. As Zhou points out, early data from South Africa does indicate that children have become infected with Omicron. “However, it is too early to determine if this variant of concern (VOC) behaves differently than other VOCs with respect to children,” she explains.

Is My Vaccinated Child Protected Against the Omicron Variant?

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for both children aged 5 to 11 and teens aged 12 to 15, many parents have been able to breathe a deep sigh of relief that our children are finally able to get some protection against COVID-19. As such, many of us have been wondering if the emergence of Omicron might somehow make these vaccines less protective in some way.

As with everything else regarding Omicron, there are still many questions to be answered, including how effective the COVID-19 vaccines will be. Zachary Hoy, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Nashville Pediatric Infectious Disease, shares that it’s possible that the vaccines will take a hit when it comes to spreading infections.

“Omicron has alterations in spike protein,” says Dr. Hoy. “Vaccine-induced antibodies’ main target are spike proteins, so the vaccine may not be as effective for Omicron.”

On December 8, 2021, Pfizer released preliminary laboratory data on how their vaccine performed against Omicron. The company found that neutralizing titers (concentrations of antibodies) were reduced against the Omicron variant vs. the original strain of COVID-19.

However, this reduction was most noticeable when serum antibodies of people who had received two doses of Pfizer's vaccine were tested. On a more encouraging note, people who had received three doses of the vaccine still had significant neutralizing titers.

Beginning in January 2022, children age 12 to 17 became eligible to receive COVID booster shoots. Children age 5 to 11 are not eligible for boosters and children 4 and under have not had vaccines approved for their age group yet.

Dr. Hoy urges parents not to worry too much about this new data. "Given the levels of neutralizing antibody against Omicron after two doses of vaccine, I would expect children/teens who can only get two doses of vaccination to still be protected against death, hospitalization, and severe disease," he says.

He predicts that there will be booster recommendations for kids and teens over the next few months based on these findings from Pfizer. Until then, he wants to assure parents that the current vaccines available to children will protect them from getting severely ill.

"Eighty percent of spike protein epitopes [molecules the antibodies attach to] were not affected by mutations in the omicron variant, so two doses of vaccine would still provide protection against more severe disease," Dr. Hoy commented.

Should I Keep My Kid In School?

School-aged kids, and their parents, have had a rough few years. Schools shut down suddenly in the spring of 2020, and the next school year, many kids were in either hybrid or remote school. Now, fortunately, most schools are back in person. But with the emergence of Omicron, many parents are wondering if schools will continue to be safe—and if Omicron might mean more shutdowns in the future.

Thankfully, experts agree that if schools continue to take the precautions that many are taking—masking, distancing, and testing—schools should be able to remain a safe environment for our kids.

“Vaccination, mask-wearing, and rapid, frequent, proactive testing continue to be our best tools to fight Omicron and all other variants of SARS-CoV-2,” says Dr. Zhou. She urges parents to get their kids vaccinated when eligible and to continue to be vigilant about mask-wearing in school. Proactive testing in school populations is also important.

These measures will not only keep your child safe from omicron—and all variants—but also decrease the chances of outbreaks and shutdowns occurring in schools, Dr. Zhou explains.

What Can I Do to Protect My Family Against the Omicron Variant?

Amy Verlsteffen, APRN, senior director of clinical transformation at TytoCare, is not only a pediatric nurse practitioner but also a mother of five. She shared with Verywell Family how she is keeping her family safe amid the news of Omicron. In a nutshell, she is planning on continuing to do what she’s been doing all along—following recommendations from the CDC, and heeding advice from medical professionals.

Alicia Zhou, PhD

Vaccination, mask-wearing, and rapid, frequent, proactive testing continue to be our best tools to fight Omicron and all other variants of SARS-CoV-2.

— Alicia Zhou, PhD

“My children are vaccinated, we practice social distancing, we avoid large crowds, and we wash our hands frequently,” Verlsteffen. “I am no more ‘worried’ about this variant than I was about [the original strain of] COVID-19 or the Delta variant,” she commented.

In addition to the measures Verlsteffen is taking to keep her family safe, Dr. Zhou emphasizes that it’s important for every member of your family to be vaccinated, and boosted, if eligible. Masking is important, but you also want to ensure that your child is wearing a mask that fits well and that has a good seal. Parents might consider upgrading to KN95 or N95 masks, she says.

Finally, it’s important to get yourself tested frequently, Dr. Zhou advises, and to certainly get tested if your child or anyone in your family is showing signs of COVID-19.  

What This Means For You

It’s completely understandable if the news of the Omicron variant has got you a little on edge. Many parents are feeling this way; you are far from alone. It’s important to keep in mind that although there are many unknowns about how this variant will affect our children and our families, we have so many effective tools to keep ourselves safe.

All experts recommend that we continue to mask up, vaccinate when eligible, and continue to get tested when we show signs of COVID-19. If you have any other concerns about Omicron and your own child’s health, their pediatrician is a great resource. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them at this time.

12 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.