Omicron FAQs: Is the New Variant More of a Risk to Infants and Toddlers? What About Vaccinated Kids?

By: John R. Schreiber, MD, MPH, and Beth Natt, MD, MPH

This post was last updated January 19, 2022.

Right around the time your family was celebrating Thanksgiving, you probably heard news about a new variant in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Omicron variant is now surging around the world, including in the U.S.

Scientists are racing to learn more. In the meantime, we know parents have questions. Connecticut Children’s infectious disease expert John R. Schreiber, MD, MPH, and hospital medicine specialist Beth Natt, MD, MPH, SFHM, share what we know so far.

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What is the Omicron variant?

It’s a mutation of the COVID-19 virus.

Viruses are constantly mutating, so by now there are probably thousands of variants of COVID-19 around the world. But only a handful have spread enough to earn a name (based on the Greek alphabet) from the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO has labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” one of its most serious categories. It’s now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. and other countries.

How is the Omicron variant different from previous COVID-19 variants?

Different mutations change how viruses behave, and the Omicron variant has a lot of new mutations – about 30 compared to only three or four in the Delta variant. Scientists have been working hard to learn what all of those mutations do.

At this point, it seems like the Omicron variant is much more contagious than previous strains of COVID-19, including the Delta variant. But it seems to cause less severe illness.

Are kids more at risk from the Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant doesn’t seem to cause more serious illness in kids than other variants, which is good news. Even so, kids are being hospitalized in record numbers as a result of the current surge.

That’s probably because young children are the least-vaccinated part of the population: In the U.S., kids under 5 aren’t eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, and only a small percentage of kids ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated so far.

Omicron is incredibly contagious, and without the protection of vaccines, more children are catching COVID-19 than ever before. For a small percentage of kids, that leads to hospitalization. Even though it’s only a small percentage, it’s out of a very big number of overall cases – which is why it’s a record high.

Mother holds toddler while looking at thermometer

What’s the best way to protect my child?

The vaccines are our best protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. If your child is age 5 or older, get their COVID-19 vaccine today – and make sure the other people in your household are vaccinated and boosted too.

You should also up your family’s masks to N95, if possible, which appear to be more effective against Omicron.

> Related: The COVID-19 Vaccine and Younger Kids: FAQs for Ages 5 to 11

What if my child isn’t old enough for a COVID-19 vaccine?

Take other available steps to protect them. You know the drill: Make sure every eligible family member is vaccinated and, once they’re eligible, gets their booster shot. Keep wearing masks for kids over the age of 2, practicing social distancing, and limiting the size of social gatherings. Make sure your child is caught up on other immunizations like the flu shot. And always keep your child home and call a doctor if they might be sick, or if they’ve been exposed to someone who’s infected.

How well do the current COVID-19 vaccines work against the Omicron variant?

From what we’re seeing, vaccinated individuals are more likely to get breakthrough infections and spread Omicron than previous variants. Some may even get sick with mild symptoms like a cold or flu.

But the vaccines still offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death from Omicron – the most important role of any vaccine. And boosters increase that protection.

Should my child wait to get their COVID-19 vaccine, in case a future vaccine is created specifically for the Omicron variant?

Please don’t wait. COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are surging in our community, including among children. The current vaccines do a good job preventing severe illness. Your child needs protection now. The vaccine could mean the difference between a mild infection or no infection at all, versus a trip to the hospital.

> Related: How to Prepare Your Child for the COVID-19 Vaccine

Will COVID-19 booster shots help against the Omicron variant?

Yes, for all the reasons above. Every person who’s eligible for a booster should get one!

Besides the vaccine and other COVID-19 precautions, what can I do to keep my child healthy this winter?

Make sure your child’s immune system is as strong as possible, so they can fight off all kinds of illness.

And as always, stay in close contact with your child’s pediatrician. We’re here to support you.

To keep up with the latest news about the Omicron variant, subscribe to Connecticut Children’s Growing Healthy newsletter. Our experts share COVID-19 information and resources, plus lots of other tips for a healthy, happy winter.

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