With omicron sweeping the country, medical pros are curious if this strain will finally get us to herd immunity.
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"Everyone I know is testing positive for either COVID or a baby," I told a friend over dinner on Monday night.

With my county's COVID-19 test positivity rate nearing 30% this week (and that's not even counting at-home tests and those who can't find a test slot to book)—and with pals announcing their happy baby news around the holidays—this felt very true at the time. And it's becoming more true by the day.

Silhouettes of 4 people with covid cells above their heads
Credit: Getty Images / We Are / Radoslav Zilinsky

Within 10 minutes of having this story topic approved by my editor this morning, I received an email from my Monday night dinner companion alerting me that her daughter had just tested positive and she was isolating at home. (Cue the rush to book a PCR ASAP … the fact that these acronyms are now so commonplace is another sign of how widespread and long-running this pandemic truly is.)

Why So Many People Are Testing Positive for Omicron Right Now

On January 10 alone, more than 1.3 million Americans tested positive, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 0.4% of the country's total population. (In. One. Day.) Even with about 75% of Americans vaccinated, breakthrough cases are becoming super common since the omicron variant is so rampant and spreads so easily. Omicron is responsible for 98.3% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States last week, per CDC estimates shared on Tuesday.

Abroad, people and hospitals are getting hit hard as well. The World Health Organization estimates that 50% of Europeans will contract the coronavirus within the next two months if cases continue on their current trend.

Since omicron seems to be less severe than previous variants, some health pros are wondering if it may continue evolving into weaker strains and eventually become like today's common cold and flu. Still, it's tough to rest easy when 78% of the country's ICU beds are full and thousands of Americans are dying each day.

Will We Ever Reach "Herd Immunity" with COVID?

With omicron taking over the country and the world, is it possible that this tidal wave of cases could lead to that "herd immunity" we've been talking about since the beginning of this pandemic?

"Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody," Anthony Fauci, M.D., the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Tuesday. "Those who have been vaccinated ... and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death."

On the flip side, the unvaccinated are "going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this," Fauci added.

From June through September, for example, those who were unvaccinated accounted for 85% of total COVID-19 hospitalizations (with vaccinated people making up the other 15%; and vaccinated stays were generally shorter).

Pretty much all of us will have an encounter with someone who has COVID-19 at some point, Elizabeth Connick, M.D., the chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Arizona tells Healthline.

"We have some evidence that the vaccine not only protects people from symptoms but also provides some protection from infection. Research says that each person who gets an infection will expose this virus to 10 more people. Theoretically, several scenarios are possible," Connick adds.

The Bottom Line

While it's not possible at the moment to say if herd immunity is on the horizon, Connick believes we may have enough data by mid-2022 to have a clearer picture into the crystal ball.

"I think it's premature to say anything too specific. We need more data on how much immunity it generates and how protective it is against getting it again," Connick tells Healthline.

For now, we all need to keep masking up, testing and isolating when exposed or symptomatic and doing our best to keep ourselves, our family members and all we pass as safe as possible, the health experts confirm. If you, too, come down with coronavirus, here are the best foods and drinks to load up on to bounce back.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.