AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As infectious disease specialists are learning more and more about the omicron variant of COVID-19, new research from the University of Texas-Austin is forecasting dark days ahead unless action is taken.

UT’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium has been providing forecasts about case, hospitalization and mortality trends throughout the pandemic. Its latest study, released Thursday, projects a wave throughout the United States that will peak late January or early February with cases 220% higher than the Jan 2021 peak — in an extreme scenario. Hospitalization and death rates would also follow: 180% and 120% higher, respectively.

Anass Bouchnita, a postdoctoral researcher who helps lead the projections report, said their findings emphasize the need for people to get booster shots.

“This is the best time to act because now we don’t know much about the omicron yet. So we are still working with the data that we have, either from South Africa or from the United Kingdom,” he said. “We don’t want to be caught unprepared, especially during the holiday season where people are traveling and meeting their relatives.”

One key finding from the report was how booster shots could make a difference in the projections. If 80% of vaccinated people are boosted by March 1, cases would be reduced by 5%, hospitalizations by 12%, deaths by 13% — which would equate to 1.3 million fewer cases, 168,000 fewer hospitalizations and 39,000 fewer deaths between Dec. 1 and May 1, in a pessimistic scenario.

Epidemiologists and researchers are still trying to learn more about the omicron variant. So far, most experts believe it is more transmissible but less severe.

According to a study from the University of Hong Kong, it spreads 70 times faster than the delta variant. Some reports show that the severity of illness caused by omicron is less of that than delta. However, a study from Imperial College in London found that omicron cases are just as severe as delta.

Still, Dr. Jennifer Shuford — the state’s highest-ranked infectious disease doctor for DSHS — said the transmissibility of omicron is what’s causing the most alarm.

“Having a decreased severity of illness is great because we hope that the proportion of people who get infected that require hospitalization will be lower,” she said. “But anytime that we have a huge surge of patients, we know that some of them are going to require hospitalization, and some of them are going to die.”

Because so much about omicron is still unknown, Shuford says it’s crucial families take extra precautions when gathering for the holidays.

“Especially if omicron is going to give us less severe illness, then we might not always know when we’re infected but we could still pass it on to other people,” she said. “…Take a rapid COVID test before they go to their holiday gathering, just in case they’re infected but they don’t have any symptoms yet, to prevent them from transmitting to other people at that gathering.”