An Atlanta resident, recently returning from travels to South Africa, has become the first Georgian officially diagnosed with the Omicron variant of COVID-19, following recent similar diagnoses in several other states across the country, most with recent travel to South Africa. And while watching my Georgia Bulldogs fall to a clearly superior Crimson Tide team on SEC Championship game day, I felt more pain watching the tumble in the variable returns on my IRAs and stock portfolio last week. Wall Street is shifting into near panic mode about the possibilities of more global and U.S. shutdowns and the return of travel restrictions accompanying the arrival of this most recent and more contagious COVID-19 variant, with already 50 identified additional mutations.

The mutations of this variant appear key to making it more transmissible, particularly among already immune-compromised or those dealing with other chronic medical conditions. On the plus side, fear of this variant is creating a late fall surge toward vaccinations and booster inoculations. Each time we think we are on the far side of this pandemic, a new wave of exposure follows a bit of carelessness and returns to pre-pandemic hygiene or socializing protocols or the variant itself much more easily spreads among available hosts. Delta was the last major spike, and we don’t know quite yet how far Omicron will go, but this time global spread is happening quickly, just in time for the holidays. Global health experts are assessing the efficacy of our existing vaccines and anti-viral treatment arsenal against this new variation, again extending the pandemic. Breakthrough cases, despite vaccination, also occurred with the Delta variant, hopefully, these too will be less severe and result in both fewer hospitalizations and fewer fatalities if you have already been vaccinated. As the annual flu vaccine is adjusted in anticipation of which flu strains are more likely to be globally prevalent, BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna and those mRNA vaccines can be reformulated and sequenced to even more strongly combat the differing structures of each variant. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would also still be required to greenlight those adjusted vaccines.

Thus far the pharmaceutical community has been reluctant to tweak vaccine formulas, due to both the additional time and regulatory expense, and also the real possibility of evolving into a game of COVID variant whack-a-mole. In addition, altering these already existing and fully regulatory approved vaccines, to fight a particular strain or variant, might reduce their efficacy and impact against the earlier strains. Historians will recall that it was the second round and variant of the global flu epidemics of 1917-1918 which killed millions. Anti-viral Covid-19 pills manufactured and trial-tested by Merck and Pfizer both await FDA approval. The vaccines are still the better preventative, but the trial data indicate that both treatment regimens are very effective at reducing symptom severity and improving COVID patient outcomes.

The Biden Administration, mirroring earlier moves which it criticized by the Trump Administration, is banning travel to seven nations where Omicron is rapidly on the rise, as a “precautionary measure.” But travel restrictions didn’t stop the Delta, Alpha, or original COVID-19 Wuhan strain from fast encircling the globe, whether they arrived via a cargo container, on a Delta flight, or followed the movements of medical aid workers and personnel around the world.

The question remains if our holiday gift bags and stockings will be filled with more masks, lockdowns and a double down of social distancing, or if there will be even more effort exerted to move vaccination rates among all eligible populations above 70%. Georgia’s statewide vaccine rate remains stuck at just above 50%, though higher in urban areas and across metro Atlanta. South Africa recently declined doses of both the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines, as vaccine hesitancy there has the country sitting on a vaccine surplus, despite the Omicron variant apparently originating there.

We know clearly from the earlier lockdowns that economic shutdowns and their unintended consequences can cause more harm than good. Booster vaccinations and higher rates of vaccination should help the U.S. and Georgia weather this winter surge, as well as use of additional treatment options as they come online to ameliorate the impact of Omicron. And, doing you a favor for the cocktail conversation at those holiday parties you do choose to attend... it’s OH Muh Cron (like Don)...not OM NEE Cron or OM MEE the Greek alphabet letter is pronounced, which is where the variant got its name (making it the 15th variant).

Bill Crane is a syndicated columnist based in Decatur. He has worked in politics for Democrats and Republicans, respects the process and will try and give you some things to think about. Your thoughts and responses to his opinions are also welcome,

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