Public health experts warned that this could happen within a few months, but for many it hasn’t made news of the latest COVID variant any easier. The emergence of the omicron has raised many questions about how this option will behave and what it means for the future pandemic for people around the world, as well as purely logistical questions about public health protocols, our vacation plans and our daily lives.
What do we know at the moment? Omicron, which the World Health Organization described as a variant of the problem of concern on Nov. 26, appears to have over 30 mutations in its spiked protein, a virus signature that helps it infect a human host. By comparison, the delta variant, which still accounts for the vast majority of known new infections in the United States and around the world, had fewer than a dozen such mutations. The WHO said the variant potentially carries an “increased risk of re-infection” and has been found in several countries, but no cases of omicron have yet been confirmed in the US. Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor. PBS NewsHour’s leading and managing editor Judy Woodruff told PBS NewsHour on Monday that he “would really be surprised if we didn’t end up having this here in this country.”
Key questions about the new option need to be answered, including whether it is more transmissible, causes more severe disease, and responds to vaccines and medications. Amanda McClelland, who is an expert on international public health management for the Decide to Save Lives global health initiative, says she expects answers to be in the spotlight over the next 10 days as scientists take a close look at the evolution of the omicron. …
The type and combination of mutations found in the omicron worries epidemiologists such as Dr. Caitlin Jetelina, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston and author of the blog Your Local Epidemiologist.
But the main message that experts like Jetelina and Fauci want the public to hear is more optimistic. “We can’t give up all hope now,” Jetelina said.
What should people be doing right now?
Experts have reminded us in recent days that we are far from powerless against the virus. As epidemiologists, virologists and public health experts have told PBS NewsHour, tools that have reduced new infections, hospitalizations and deaths during a pandemic remain our best defense. Viruses mutate to infect more hosts and survive, and early reports from South Africa suggest this variant may have caused disease in vaccinated people. But Dr. Saad Omer, an epidemiologist who heads the Yale Institute of Global Health, said: “Even if we find that effectiveness is lower, we are unlikely to find it lacking.”
Vaccines are safe, highly effective, and one of the most important ways to protect people from the severe consequences of COVID. They said that if you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you are fully vaccinated and eligible for the vaccine, do the booster vaccine.
The CDC said Monday that anyone 18 years of age or older who received a primary streak at least six months ago should Roll up our sleeves to get a booster dose – a revision of their earlier guideline, which only recommended booster vaccinations for certain groups. New evidence suggests that protective vaccines are weakening over time. This summer, the growing number of (usually mild) breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated people demonstrated that, despite their effectiveness, coronavirus vaccines have their limitations, like any vaccine. Add to this deteriorating protection, colder temperatures, winter breaks and people spending more time indoors with others, and health officials already expected to see more cases, even without the presence of the omicron.
While immunization is effective in preventing hospitalization and death, immunization alone is not enough to slow the spread of the virus and its variants, so reverting to other public health measures can help. Experts say people should wear masks in public areas or in other places with people from different households and ventilate those areas. If you have symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, or cough, get tested. If you are infected, isolate yourself from others to prevent further spread of the virus.
“We have tools at our disposal that work great,” Jetelina said. “We need to keep using them.”
Planning a vacation with a new option
Omicron caught the world’s attention the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, with many Americans returning to what appeared to be a more normal holiday season, and in some cases returning to large gatherings of family and friends.
In fact, the picture was not so rosy – the delta variant has been causing an increase in infections in the United States and most of the world for several months. In Europe, where many countries have high vaccination rates, the number of confirmed cases is on the rise, and several countries have tightened restrictions in recent weeks to control further spread – events that experts have seen as warning signs for the United States.
On vacation, full vaccinations (or boosted vaccinations) should be a top priority for humans, ”echoed Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Translation Research Institute. Alternatively, therapeutic agents, including pill formulations, offer protection against potentially life-threatening effects, especially when given early.
Free, reliable and widely available rapid tests are critical for case detection, both for the use of advanced drugs and for protecting loved ones if you are traveling or in close proximity. Fortunately, this variant can also be found in available PCR tests, Fauci said on Monday, which means omicron-related cases will not elude our monitoring.
Poplar noted that other developed countries have provided these tests directly to households and have been able to reduce the number of cases (and deaths) much lower than in the United States, where more than 776,000 people are known to have died from the virus during the pandemic.
For nearly two years, untimely death has devastated families, precautions and restrictions have kept loved ones apart, and lives and livelihoods have changed in ways that will likely take decades to fix.
It’s important to remember that the US has more capacity to respond to the virus than it did a year ago, ”said Dr Gigi Gronewall, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security. Vaccines, which were on the verge of being offered only to the country’s most vulnerable in December last year, are now widely available to people aged 5 and over. The federal government tends to keep track of the latest data and science, she said, unlike a year ago when the Trump administration argued “with government officials about whether this virus is harmful.”
“We are all tired of this pandemic and want to be on the other side of it,” Gronwall said. “But everything is in many ways better than it was a year ago.”
At the same time, leaders cannot ignore the social and emotional impact of the pandemic, Omer said.
He and his colleagues have been studying pandemic fatigue – and what is at stake if ignored – since the early days of COVID. Of this area of research, good practice for policymakers includes the need for appeal. To people are forced to comply with public health measures instead of blaming, shaming or intimidating; using “clear, precise and predictable language” in describing these measures and their need for; and the understanding that while some tactics can protect people’s physical health, they also harm their overall well-being and are unacceptable.
Before legal vaccines were available, isolation measures contained spread and protected health systems from overloading, but these mitigation measures were costly. During a press conference on Monday, President Joe Biden said he currently sees no need for such orders if people are vaccinated and wear masks. Even faced with the unknown risks of an emerging option, Omer said the isolation measures open “windows of opportunity” for evidence-based timely action, but “are not sustainable on a permanent basis.”
What the world needs to do
The latest version of a pandemic is a real reminder of the global inequality in vaccines and what happens when low- and middle-income countries are not fully integrated into vaccination campaigns. About half of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. But in low-income countries, that level of protection against the virus drops to 6 percent.
READ MORE: COVID-19 Fighting Is A Race From The Behind For Countries With Low Vaccine Doses
So far, the United States is the world leader in donating COVID-19 vaccines to the global community, but these donations are just a small fraction of what the country has pledged to offer, Omer said.
“We’ve heard a lot of platitudes about the fairness of vaccines, but we haven’t seen a lot of action,” McClelland said.
In South Africa, about a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated. There, scientists first identified the option earlier in November and alerted the world community. But despite evidence that the option can be traced back to its earlier origins in Europe, travel bans quickly hit travelers from South Africa and neighboring countries, raising fears that countries would be deprived of incentives for transparency and cooperation.
Constructive action requires more than just dosing countries and waiting for them to take up the slack, McClelland said. For example, she said, one small country with a population of 2 million received seven different vaccines, each with its own logistical aspects of circulation, distribution and side effects. These obstacles, combined with the need for staffing as well as clear public health messages (in part to counter misinformation seen in the United States), make it difficult to deploy the vaccine, McClelland said.
“We have to think of vaccines as a complete ongoing process,” she said. “It’s not just vaccines.”
The World Health Assembly is meeting in Geneva this week to sign a new treaty to prevent future pandemics, and McClelland said countries must commit to fairer distribution and production of vaccines to achieve that goal.
“This is really a now or never moment,” she said.