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Omicron protection from booster eases holiday worries

As the spread of omicron looms and holiday family gatherings and plane travel draw near, people should rest easier if they have received a Pfizer or Moderna booster shot, say Northwestern Medicine experts. 

“News that the boosters for fully vaccinated individuals offer protection against the omicron variant is reassuring and offers more encouragement for people to get a booster shot, if they are due,” said COVID-19 scientist Dr. Egon Ozer, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “They now know there is a benefit, and boosters are worth doing for their own and their family’s protection.”

In fully vaccinated individuals, the booster provides 25 times more protection against omicron than two vaccinations alone, said Ozer, director of the Center for Pathogen Genomics and Microbial Evolutions at Northwestern. Still, the protection is about 20 percent less relative to protection compared to delta after boosting, he noted.

He and his family plan to travel to Alaska over the holidays to see his parents. “We are all vaccinated and boosted and keeping things close to home,” Ozer said. 

Getting a booster is critical, said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Currently only one in four eligible people have gotten their boosters, he noted. 

“We know omicron is going to take over,” Murphy said. “It’s replicating very fast. One of the models predicts a big wave in January.” 

Even with the good news about booster protection, the same safety guidelines apply.  

“If you are seeing people outside your household, make sure they are vaccinated and boosted, if they are due,” Ozer said. “It’s still a good idea to do testing before you meet with people who are outside your household. That’s not a guarantee someone isn’t carrying the virus and will be infectious in a few days. But it offers more knowledge and protection if you are testing before meeting people. We still recommend masking in indoor places in public.” 

“Dr. Fauci’s comments that most Americans who are vaccinated can enjoy holiday gatherings if they know the vaccination status of the attendees is encouraging,” said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Coupling that with rapid testing and a willingness to change plans as needed, is going to be necessary to keep everyone safe.”

“However, the Delta variant is still racing through the population and causing severe disease among the unvaccinated and in older adults and immunocompromised,” Carnethon said. “Waning commitment to other mitigation measures such as mask-wearing is going to yield many new cases.”

Variants will continue to emerge as long as the virus continues to spread and infect new people, and especially when there isn’t enough protection by vaccination in or outside the U.S., Northwestern experts said. 

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