The World Health Organization recently announced Omicron is the latest coronavirus variant of concern, but experts stress there is still a lot we don’t know, including how contagious it is.

The first case of the newly detected COVID-19 variant, Omicron, has been reported in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Wednesday.

The individual—who returned to California from South Africa on November 22—was fully vaccinated and has mild symptoms that are improving, the CDC said in the press release. As of now, the patient is self-quarantining and their close contacts have all tested negative for COVID-19.

The news comes just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Omicron, also known as the variant B.1.1.529, a “variant of concern” on November 26, quickly following its identification in South Africa. Currently, the WHO reports that at least 23 countries have identified cases of Omicron, and that number is expected to grow.

After nearly two full years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, any new variant—like the now-dominant Delta strain, which is also a designated “variant of concern”—is concerning. But the truth is, there’s quite a lot of information we still don’t know about Omicron, and scientists are trying to figure out how the variant works in real time. Here, experts help us break down what we do know about Omicron so far, including what makes it so different from previously seen variants of concern.

The Omicron Variant: What We Know So Far


What is the Omicron variant?

As viruses spread through a population they mutate, and sometimes those mutations result in a new variant of the virus that differs slightly from the original (in this case SARS-CoV-2). That’s what Omicron is: a variant of the original virus that causes COVID-19. The variant is named Omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, a naming system adopted by the WHO in May to make talking about the viruses less confusing, the agency said.

Omicron was first identified in South Africa and reported to the WHO on November 24. As NPR previously reported, South African officials began to sequence COVID-19 specimens following a surge in cases among university students outside the city of Pretoria, which led to the discovery of Omicron. According to a statement from the WHO, the first confirmed Omicron infection was detected in a specimen collected on November 9.

After taking a closer look, researchers noticed Omicron had unique qualities compared to previous variants such as “several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves,” according to a statemeny by the WHO, which prompted the organization to designate it a variant of concern.

“The thing that got everyone’s attention was the large number of mutations—around 50—much larger than previous variants,” Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Adviser to the President, said in a White House COVID-19 Response Team Briefing on Tuesday. (Comparatively speaking, the highly contagious Delta variant has fewer than 20 mutations, per the CDC.)

Even more worrisome is that about 30 of Omicron’s mutations are in the spike protein, or the part of the COVID-19 virus that penetrates cells, causing infections, Jennifer Lighter, MD, a hospital epidemiologist, infectious disease doctor, and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine tells Health.

That spike protein is also the part of the virus that our immune system recognizes and responds to, Susan Kline, MD, MPH, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School tells Health. Therefore, changes in the spike protein may mean the antibodies in a person’s system—whether from prior infection or the vaccine—are less effective at recognizing and containing the virus.

Is Omicron more contagious than other variants?

According to the WHO, “it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta.” That said, there are some red flags based on preliminary data that suggest Omicron could have a higher transmissibility than variants we’ve previously seen.

The first red flag is the high number of mutations, some of which “have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion,” Dr. Fauci said during the White House briefing. But there are other mutations for which we don’t have the full picture—and, it’s not clear what the “combination of mutations will do together,” Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, MD, PhD, an infectious-disease physician, virologist, and global-health expert at Emory University, recently told The Atlantic.

Another red flag is that Omicron appears to have quickly outcompeted the Delta variant in South Africa. NPR reported that over the past two weeks, Omicron spread to at least seven of South Africa’s nine provinces, “quickly overtaking the country’s outbreak.”

This suggests Omicron may be more transmissible. “[Omicron] seems to be more contagious than Delta, at least in South Africa, but we don’t have much data to suggest how contagious it is outside those certain regions,” Dr. Lighter says, noting that only 43% of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the Republic of South Africa’s Department of Health compared to almost 60% in the US, per the CDC.

Does Omicron cause more severe illness or different symptoms than other variants?

Unfortunately, much more is needed before officials can definitively say that Omicron does or does not cause more severe illness or different symptoms.

According to the WHO, preliminary data from South African suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization, “but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron,” the organization says.

“We have absolutely no evidence to suggest Omicron is more dangerous,” Dr. Lighter says. “Actually, anecdotal evidence suggest it is less dangerous, but we will have to wait to see what the data shows.”

That anecdotal evidence comes from media reports suggesting that Omicron infections present with mild symptoms. In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a physician in South Africa and chairwoman of the South African Medical Association said that patients who contracted Omicron infections experienced “fatigue, head and body aches and occasional sore throats and coughs”—essentially, “extremely mild symptoms.” However, the patients experiencing those mild symptoms are mostly younger, and mild symptoms are likely expected in that age group, Dr. Kline says.

“What we don’t know is will [Omicron] cause a more severe disease if it infects people that we know are at a higher risk of severe complications due to COVID-19 like elderly people or those with comorbidities or chronic conditions,” says Dr. Kline.

It may take several weeks for scientists and public health experts to understand the severity of Omicron, according to the WHO. But there is one thing to keep in mind here, the organization says: “All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.”

Will the vaccine work against the Omicron variant?

It’s far too early to know how Omicron will respond to vaccines, and current studies underway should be give us a clearer picture in the coming weeks, says the WHO.

Given the limited data we have, there is a legitimate concern that the variant might be less susceptible to vaccines, thanks to Omircon’s mutations, Dr. Kline says. However, less susceptible doesn’t mean completely useless, since vaccines and boosters result in high enough antibody levels that you’re protected from other variants, including Delta, Dr. Fauci said.

“The immune system actually accounts for variations, and actually has a wider immune response than just the specific targets used in the vaccine,” Dr. Lighter adds.

The WHO does report, however, that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, which means people who previously had COVID-19 but are unvaccinated, may be more likely to contract the Omicron variant. This suggests the virus might have an easier time evading the vaccine, too.

“If you have a variant that’s more contagious, you will see more infections or breakthroughs,” says Dr. Lighter. But, we won’t know this for sure until more data is available. The good news is that the WHO says current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.

As research into vaccine efficacy against Omicron continues, Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna have both announced that they’re working on an Omicron-specific booster that could be ready in fewer than 100 days, reports STAT.

The CDC also strengthened its recommendations on boosters, suggesting everyone ages 18 and older get one if they’re either six months out from their final dose of an mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna) vaccine, or two months out from a single-dose Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine.

How could Omicron change the trajectory of the pandemic?

It’s still too early to say how Omicron may or may not change the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, experts do agree that there is plausible concern the latest variant causes a new wave of cases, mostly among the unvaccinated, Dr. Kline says.

“The bottom line is that anyone that is not vaccinated is at risk of getting COVID and getting severe COVID. They will get COVID there is no way around it, sooner or later it will happen,” Dr. Lighter says. If vaccine hesitancy continues, “than it could a very bleak next few months,” she adds.

Therefore, the best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and to get your booster shot if you are eligible, Dr. Lighter says. Past that, the CDC recommends both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can further protect themselves by:

  • Wearing a well-fitting mask in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor spaces, especially if you are in area with high rates of transmission
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Physically distancing yourselves from others

“We have the ammunition to shield ourselves from another surge—people need to get vaccinated,” Dr. Lighter says. “We can take these measures to protect ourselves, our community, and our family.”


Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

Reaching middle age can certainly bring up a host of emotions, memories, and even new goals—but is there any validity to the stereotyped “midlife crisis” trope? To find out, we asked the experts, plus got their take on how to handle it if you think you’re going through one.In This Article

So, what really is a “midlife crisis”?

A midlife crisis is a period of time during middle age in which some people experience existential fears around their own mortality, as well as what they’ve accomplished so far in life and what the future holds for them. According to Anna Yusim, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life, it’s not an actual psychological term but a colloquial one.

“It’s something that we characterize as happening between the ages of 40 and 60, maybe even 35 and 65 depending, and it’s just somebody feeling discontent with an aspect of their life and often taking some steps to remedy the discontent,” Yusim says.

Those steps, adds psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, are often drastic life changes, like starting a whole new career path or trying to retain (or reclaim) some sort of youthful behavior.ADVERTISEMENT

What causes a midlife crisis.

Midlife crises are often triggered by reaching a certain age, becoming acutely aware of your own mortality, and/or reflecting on what you’ve done (or haven’t done) in life so far. “When people reevaluate their lives, it often brings up mixed emotions of anxiety, stress, regret, and sadness,” Nuñez notes.

Yusim explains that the recognition of aging can also trigger a feeling of crisis, whether it’s physical signs of aging like menopause or even simply the realization that life has grown a bit mundane.

“Something about the recognition of all of that leads people to want to grasp at something, to feel more alive, and sometimes make changes in their life,” Yusim says.

Do they only happen to men?

The idea of a man reaching middle age and having a midlife crisis that involves buying a car, for example, is a common misconception around the concept of midlife crises. According to Nuñez and Yusim, anyone can have a midlife crisis, regardless of gender.

While yes, the crisis may manifest differently in men versus women thanks to certain gender norms and expectations, there is certainly overlap, with Yusim explaining that those differences have historical origins. “Men historically have been more financially independent and were able to take steps that were much more outward in order to deal with their midlife crises, like getting a sports car,” she says.

But now times are changing, and women have more of that independence, so they, too, can switch jobs or make extravagant purchases.

All that to say, the idea that only men have midlife crises is outdated and inaccurate.

8 signs of a midlife crisis:

1. An acute awareness of getting older

One of the main characteristics of a midlife crisis is the recognition that you’re getting older, often with some negative feelings attached to it. As Yusim explains, this can be brought on by things like menopause or changes in appearance, or emotionally monumental life transitions like kids moving out of the house.

2. Impulsive behavior

To remedy the discontent they feel around aging, someone going through a midlife crisis may behave impulsively. “They may live a more reckless lifestyle because of the urgency to reevaluate life and really live,” Nuñez explains.

And as Yusim adds, “Even impulsive changes are a product of long-standing frustrations or difficulties that people have been quite conflicted about—and maybe at some point have finally decided to act on.”

3. A shift in mental or physical well-being

There’s a reason it’s called a “crisis.” Midlife crises aren’t all fun and games; they’re usually accompanied by heavy feelings such as regret, sadness, frustration, irritability, anger, and so on, according to Yusim.

4. Reflecting on the past

Nuñez says midlife crises have a lot to do with reevaluating your life. “You’re hitting a midpoint in life, and you’re reevaluating what you’ve done in life, including any regrets, and questioning what you’ve done so far,” she says.

5. Contemplating purpose and meaning

Along with reflecting on the past, there’s a lot of concern for the future—and what you’re going to make of it—when going through a midlife crisis. This kind of contemplation leads to questions about purpose and meaning, Nuñez explains. It’s about “finding out who you are as a person and trying to find the meaning of life,” she says.

6. A desire to experience new things

Realizing that your life is “half over” can make anyone want to experience new things, Nuñez and Yusim both note. Whether it’s traveling, starting a whole new career, or sky diving, someone going through a midlife crisis may go to extreme lengths to thrill-seek or simply do something they’ve never done before.

7. Concerns about appearance & status

Someone going through a midlife crisis may become increasingly preoccupied with their appearance and/or status, according to Nuñez and Yusim. Perhaps they get cosmetic surgery, dye their hair, or start dressing more “hip.” Maybe they start dating younger people, or going out and partying more, all in an attempt to hold on that youthfulness.

8. Loss of interest in certain relationships

And lastly, Nuñez and Yusim also both note that midlife crises can affect the people in the life of whoever is going through the crisis. Someone going through a midlife crisis who has children, for example, may not be as attentive as a parent as they’re trying to find themselves, Nuñez explains.

Or in other extreme instances, one partner in a relationship may realize they’ve outgrown the other, leading to a divorce. “I see a lot of couples where one partner is going through a midlife crisis and the other isn’t, and you’ll see a lot that this leads to breakups or divorces during this midlife crisis age,” she adds.

Common stages of a midlife crisis:

1. Recognition

According to Yusim, a midlife crisis can be split into three main stages, with the first being the initial recognition. This is the moment of realization that’s impossible to ignore, that you’ve reached middle age and are feeling some sort of discontent, she explains, adding, “And then people either recognize the discontent, or they push it away.”

2. The crisis itself

If someone recognizes their discontent and chooses to start making changes, this is the actual crisis stage of a midlife crisis. This is the point where you start to see many of those aforementioned signs, like impulsive behavior or changes to appearance.

In this stage, Yusim says, people can opt for internal and/or external changes. “Are you going to do something about it in your inner world, like try to change your attitude and how you’re feeling? Or something in your outer world like Botox, or leaving your marriage or your job?” she explains.

3. The resolution

Eventually, the crisis will end, and a resolution will be achieved, Yusim explains. This can take different amounts of time for everyone, with no set timeline. Generally speaking, however, when a person feels content with where they’re at and have ceased a lot of those common midlife crisis behaviors, a resolution has been reached.

Overcoming the crisis.

If you’re going through a midlife crisis:

While a midlife crisis can feel unnerving to say the least, Nuñez says it can actually be a tremendous period of self-reflection and growth. “Midlife crises are actually really helpful because in a sense, you start identifying who you are and what you want to do throughout the rest of your life. So midlife crises can be healthy as long as people don’t react to them to the extremes,” she says.

And if you are worried you’re taking things a bit too far, both she and Yusim note that talking to a therapist about how you’re feeling can help, too. “You need insight and awareness as to what is causing the discontent to know the life change you want to make,” Yusim says.

She also adds that the most important thing you can do is get a sense of what you’re really feeling. “Who are you really? What are the options available to you? And then connect with your soul,” she says.

Be patient with yourself and remember this period won’t last forever.

If someone you know is going through a midlife crisis:

If someone you know is dealing with a midlife crisis and you want to support them, Nuñez and Yusim both say the best thing you can do is to simply be there for them, listen to them, and be patient with them. They also agree it’s a good idea to suggest they seek therapy.

Nuñez adds you can watch out for them as well, stepping in if you see them partaking in self-destructive behavior like going into debt over exorbitant purchases. “Just bringing it to the person’s attention and bringing them down to earth, as opposed to letting them flounder,” she explains.

The bottom line.

The truth is, it’s natural—and not uncommon—to go through a midlife crisis at some point in your life. So if you or someone you know is experiencing a midlife crisis, know it won’t last forever, there are resources available to help you get through it, and aging can be a beautiful thing when you let it.


Graphic by Rene de Haan

Have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test? It’s one of the most common personality assessments you can take, with 16 different “types” a person can be. In the case of ISFJs, these folks make up roughly 5 to 6% of the population. Here’s what to know about this personality type, including strengths, weaknesses, best career paths, and compatibility considerations.In This Article

The ISFJ personality type.

ISFJ stands for introverted, sensing, feeling, and judging. As clinical psychologist Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP, tells mbg, this set of traits makes for an interesting combination. These personality types are “introverted and often reserved, but also really socially skilled, warm, understanding of others, as well as able to be analytical, detailed, and efficient,” she says.

ISFJs make up about 5 to 6% of the population and are twice as likely to be female as male, according to Dario Nardi, Ph.D., personality expert and author of Neuroscience of Personality. He adds that sometimes, their preferences conflict, noting that while they do like people, they are also introverts. Similarly, they can be very technical and concrete but also quite creative.

5 key traits:

1. Dependable

According to both Hallett and Nardi, ISFJs are very dependable people. Hallett notes they have a special eye for detail, and Nardi adds they’re good at noticing what’s needed and valuable. They have a talent to arrange careful support, Nardi says, with a strong sense of appropriateness based on role and context. This means they can be “highly supportive or actually not helpful because it’s not their place,” he adds.

2. Hardworking

Along with being dependable, you can count on the ISFJs in your life to work hard. Hallett tells mbg that this is a practical type, and Nardi adds that they also like to volunteer (when appropriate).

3. Compassionate

The hardworking and dependable nature of this personality type is only bolstered by the compassion these people have for others. Nardi explains ISFJs tend to be agreeable and make great listeners, remembering even the most minute details. They’re “always willing to help and support others, compassionate, and good at empathy,” Hallett adds.

4. Sensitive

According to Nardi, ISFJs are sensitive to small things—with strong preferences. “Although they present an orderly image to others, their interior life is a rich, diverse tapestry of many experiences,” he says. And as Hallett notes, ISFJs are particularly sensitive to conflict and can struggle with change. They also find it difficult to share their feelings and can struggle with their own high expectations for themselves and putting too much on their plate, she explains.

5. Technical

ISFJs have a sometimes surprising knack for technical knowledge. As Nardi explains, while they do tend to make decisions in terms of their social and personal values (thanks to the “F”), they can become very technically skilled over time. They also enjoy their traditions, work to protect the future, and like to feel a sense of accomplishment, he adds.

Common strengths:

  • Organized & detailed
  • Sensitive
  • Patient
  • Supportive
  • Good listeners
  • Knowledgeable

Common weaknesses:

  • Aversion to conflict or bearing bad news
  • Difficulty anticipating or figuring out how to prepare for the future
  • Passive communication style (versus direct)
  • Difficulty handling stress
  • Highly sensitive to criticism

ISFJs in relationships.

In relationships, Hallett notes it can take a while for ISFJs to really open up, but once the relationship is established, they’re incredibly loyal. Commitment is key to them, as is their partner recognizing how much they do for them and the relationship, she says.

“This is someone who is always trying to help and look out for their partner,” Hallett adds, noting this can lead to doing “too much” in the relationship or neglecting their own needs. And because these folks can struggle to directly express their feelings, partners of ISFJs may not realize how deep their emotions really go.

Nardi explains that overall, this personality type wants a stable and reliable partner who’s sensitive to their preferences and needs. “They often like a partner who takes the lead but does not pressure them,” he says, adding that they dislike shouting and prefer things to be handled in a civil way. “That said, they can get rigid around their own preferences and get passive-aggressive at times,” he explains.

And if you’re wondering about compatibility with other MBTI types, Hallett says ISFJs best matches include those with similar values, with perhaps a bit more extroversion for balance, such as an ESFJ or ESTP. Nardi says any of the other “SJ” or “SF” types are also compatible, “and maybe some STPs and NFJs.” He notes that they’re the least compatible with “NT” types.

ISFJs in the workplace.

Career-wise, Hallett and Nardi both note that ISFJs appreciate a job that allows them to help and care for others. Hallett adds that workplaces without a lot of high conflict are also ideal.

“These are individuals who will want to make a difference with their work and are not likely to be pushing for the spotlight—but who will always root for the team and make everyone feel recognized and valued,” Hallett explains. And thanks to their strong attention to detail, “planning and organization combined with their fabulous people skills can allow them to flourish in a variety of settings,” she says.

Nardi says these folks would likely do well as nurses, teachers, psychologists, or social workers and also enjoy artistic work such as a music, dancing, and even hairstyling. “Often they can get technically very skilled here,” he explains, adding, “In time, they can become good at improvisation, such as a jazz musician, after they build up a storehouse of techniques.”

It also wouldn’t be unheard of to see an ISFJ as a librarian, a fashion model or designer, or an architect. “They have a hidden love of design,” Nardi adds.

How to thrive as an ISFJ.

It’s important for an ISFJ to take pride and draw confidence from their accomplishments and talents, Nardi says. They would also do well to be careful with their commitments and know when to say no, he adds.

Hallett echoes this, noting, “Thriving for the ISFJ will be enhanced through learning to set reasonable boundaries for themselves, practicing open communication beyond their comfort zone with trusted people, and learning to ask for and accept help—especially positive feedback to counter their innate sensitivity.”

She adds that these people learn best by doing rather than simply being taught or reading about it. And as Nardi notes, it can be beneficial for this type to broaden their horizons in different ways, whether through travel, experiencing other cultures, exploring their own heritage, or having a diverse social network.

The bottom line.

The ISFJ type may come across as unassuming, but you’ll be surprised by their vast technical knowledge, their strong work ethic, and their capacity for kindness. While each of the 16 MBTI types has its strengths and weaknesses, it’s not a far cry to say if you’ve got one of these people in your life, you can consider yourself lucky.


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