The spreading Omicron variant means people with two doses of COVID-19 vaccines are no longer fully vaccinated.
That’s according to University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine, who said the COVID-19 variant’s ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity means everyone needs a booster shot.
“The two-dose (or) one-dose primary series of vaccine doesn’t really mean that you are fully vaccinated,” he said.
And he added that everyone should get the vaccines as soon as possible because the Omicron variant is the most transmissible yet.
Though infections with Omicron appear mild — and he stressed scientists still need more information about the severity — Muhajarine said everyone should take the variant seriously.
That’s because it can still damage health or prove deadly and because Saskatchewan’s health-care system is recovering from the fourth wave.
“A small fraction of a very large number (of people needing hospitalization) is still going to be a large number of people needing hospital care in a system which is already exhausted,” he said.
Part of what makes Omicron spread so easily appears to be the speed with which it replicates and with which infected people display symptoms.
Anyone infected with Delta or other variants, or the original strain, began displaying symptoms usually three to five days after exposure, he said.
People infected with Omicron typically show symptoms about 48 hours after contracting the virus — symptoms that resemble a common cold and not the hacking cough and loss of taste associated with previous strains.
That short incubation time means people are infectious sooner, which makes it harder to stop the spread.
And it is spreading.
John Giesy is a USask toxicologist and part of the university’s team that monitors COVID-19 RNA in Saskatoon’s wastewater.
His findings, which he shared with Global News, shows Omicron accounts for slightly more than 30 per cent of the virus load in the city’s wastewater, as of Dec. 15.
The research team hadn’t detected it the week before.
“The numbers are still low, but they’re increasing very rapidly,” Giesy said. “I would predict in two weeks it’ll be 100 per cent Omicron.”
Giesy and Nazeem both pointed to Ontario as an example of what could, and potentially will, happen to Saskatchewan.
The Ontario government reported nearly 4,000 new infections on Monday, more than double the figure a week prior.
“That is a really unprecedented rate of growth for Omicron, even compared to Delta,” Muhajarine told Global News.
“I expect what happened in Ontario over the last two weeks will happen here,” Giesy said.
“That’s what our data is showing.”
Muhajarine said it is still safe to travel this holiday season, provided people wear N95 masks, use rapid tests before they leave and within 24 to 36 hours after arriving at their destination and stick to small groups.
He said travellers should be very cautious.
“Is this a fifth wave? Not in Saskatchewan, not yet,” he said.
“But ask me again in another two weeks.”
— with files from Gabby Rodrigues