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

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 surging around the world, and the first U.S. cases were recently confirmed.

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 already labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” one of its most serious categories. For comparison, the Delta variant was the most recent variant of concern, and it’s now responsible for more than 99% of COVID-19 cases worldwide.

It’s hard to know where the Omicron variant first came from, but it’s already the dominant strain of COVID-19 in countries like South Africa, and it’s spreading in lots of other countries. The U.S. recently confirmed its first cases.

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. It’s going to take a few weeks (and lots of lab tests) for scientists to learn what all of those mutations do.

At this point, it seems like the Omicron variant is more contagious than previous strains of COVID-19, including the Delta variant. We don’t know yet if it causes more severe illness, or exactly how the existing COVID-19 vaccines hold up against it. In fact, early data from South Africa suggest that immunized individuals usually have mild illness from this variant.

Are infants and toddlers more at risk from the Omicron variant?

We’re watching this topic closely.

Up until now, COVID-19 has usually caused mild symptoms in very young children. But in South Africa, where the Omicron variant is now the dominant strain, more children under age 2 are being hospitalized than any other age group. We do not know if this means that the Omicron variant causes more serious illness in young kids than previous variants, or whether this is due to other factors in young kids in South Africa. We hope to know more soon.

Mother holds toddler while looking at thermometer

What’s the best way to protect my child?

The vaccines are still 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 too.

> 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. Make sure adults in the family get their booster shot six months after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 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?

Scientists are working to answer this, but the testing process takes a couple weeks. We should know more by mid-December.

There’s a chance the existing COVID-19 vaccines won’t be as good at preventing mild infections from the Omicron variant. But most experts think they should still protect against severe illness and death – the most important role of any vaccine.

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 are already rising rapidly in our community due to more indoor activities and holiday gatherings. Right now, the Delta variant dominates our cases and the vaccines work well against it. 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 adult who’s eligible for a booster should get one! If your child is at least 18 years old and eligible, encourage them to talk to their doctor.

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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