Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said on Dec. 5 that Americans shouldn’t panic over the COVID-19 Omicron variant, but urged the public to continue taking precautions, such as wearing masks, to protect themselves against the virus.
Murthy acknowledged that he is “concerned” that Omicron, which was first discovered in South Africa last month, might be more transmissible than other variants such Alpha and Delta, the latter of which emerged earlier this year as the dominant strain.
However, he stressed that individuals are now better informed as to how to increase their chances of staying safe, such as maintaining social distancing and getting vaccinated, following nearly two years of the pandemic.
“I do think it’s a reason for us to not necessarily panic but to be more vigilant and to recognize that the precautions that we have been talking about for the last year or so are all the more important now than ever,” Murthy told “Fox News Sunday.”
“We do know that the measures that we take to protect ourselves from the spread of COVID—including wearing masks in indoor spaces, being in well-ventilated spaces—those work and will work against Omicron,” he told host Chris Wallace. “We also know with vaccines, Chris, that even though we’re trying to figure out the exact level of protection our vaccines will give against Omicron, in every case we have seen the vaccinated are better off, particularly more protected against hospitalization and death, than the unvaccinated. That’s why we’re urging people to get vaccinated and boosted.”
Murthy added that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks in indoor spaces when they are with people from outside their households, something that has been advised for months.
President Joe Biden announced the decision to restrict travel last month from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
Those restrictions went into effect on Nov. 29, however White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Dec. 5 that the administration is reevaluating those travel bans.
As of Dec. 6, U.S. citizens and foreign nationals arriving in the United States also will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test performed within 24 hours of departure, a change from the previous three days allowed for vaccinated travelers.
To date, more than 20 cases of Omicron have been reported in the United States. Worldwide, no deaths have been associated with the new strain, which was described as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization late last month.
Meanwhile, researchers have been trying to understand the nature of Omicron’s emergence, how transmissible it could potentially be, and whether it’s a milder variant than the Alpha or Delta strains.
But Murthy sought to reassure the American public that the nation is better equipped to handle COVID-19 than in the past and insisted that there would not be a situation reminiscent of the beginning of the virus outbreak.
“I just want to make sure people understand this very clearly: We are not back in March 2020, despite the prospect of a new variant—Omicron—on the horizon and despite the fact that we found cases here,” Murthy said. “We have more tools, we have more knowledge to protect ourselves.”