Just when we were beginning to think we could see the light at the end of the tunnel on COVID-19, it turns out that the light might be a train coming the other way. Or maybe not. But all signs are pointing to the possibility of a “twindemic” of the flu and the coronavirus hitting at the same time this winter.
There’s still much we don’t know about the new COVID-19 omicron variant. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was first detected just over a month ago. Our concierge primary care doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter have gotten questions from so many of our patients. We wanted to bring you up to date on what we know at the moment.
Health officials are conducting laboratory tests and reviewing real-world data as the variant spreads. However, it will be several weeks before we know precisely what we’re dealing with. There are some early indications, however, that can allow us to make a few assumptions.
How different is omicron?
The new variant originally caught the world’s attention in South Africa. Researchers there detected as many as 30 mutations on the shell of the coronavirus.
In the intervening weeks, we’ve learned that omicron is highly contagious, even more so than delta. While delta’s transmissibility has been compared to that of chicken pox, omicron has been spreading much more rapidly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released an update in mid-December. It noted the omicron variant is spreading faster than any previously detected strain of the coronavirus.
There’s some possible good news. So far as real-world data have been able to determine, the omicron variant appears to trigger slightly less severe cases than delta. This information is very preliminary and is based on a study in South Africa where the infection and vaccination rates differ from that in the U.S.
Another small study this month by the CDC examined 43 people infected with the omicron variant. Three-quarters of the group received vaccinations, and a third of those also had booster shots. One person from the group was hospitalized for two days. The rest experienced cough, fatigue, congestion, or a runny nose.
While noting the report was “encouraging,” John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Weill Cornell Medical College, told NBC News that, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
“Only four cases [in the study] were aged over 65, while 29 were under 40. Young people generally have milder infections, whatever the variant,” he added. “So we don’t yet know what omicron might do in much older and more vulnerable populations.”
The variant is not benign, however. In the middle of the month, Britain reported its first death from the omicron variant. Since then, reports of possible omicron-related deaths grew.
Omicron now surpassed delta as the dominant variant due its rapid spread.
What about the vaccines?
The question of vaccine effectiveness against omicron is a case of good news/bad news, or perhaps vice versa. The bad news, according to the South African study, the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing illness dropped from around 93 percent to about 30 percent against the omicron variant. It still provided about 70 percent protection against hospitalization, though.
The good news is, the study found that the vaccine still offers as much as 70 percent effectiveness against hospitalization with any current variant of COVID-19, including omicron. Boosters increase this protection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently that boosters will be enough protection against the omicron variant. He didn’t see a need for a new vaccine specifically designed to fight omicron.
“Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron,” he said at a White House coronavirus briefing. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster.”
At the same time, he warned those unvaccinated are still at high risk of contracting COVID-19. This includes the delta and omicron variant.
“If you are unvaccinated, you are very vulnerable—not only to the existing delta surge we are experiencing, but also to omicron,” he said.
Vaccines continue to offer the best protection against severe illness and death against any variant of the coronavirus, including omicron.
“[Omicron] may be a more mild variant but we just don’t know yet. It’s too soon,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, told NBC News. For now, “if you’re vaccinated, chances are you’re going to have a milder course,” he added.
Do we still need masks?
One question we often get from our patients is whether they need to keep wearing masks once they’ve been vaccinated.
Here’s what the CDC says: “If you are fully vaccinated, to maximize protection and prevent possibly spreading COVID-19 to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.”
We would add that it’s also a good idea to wear one if you are indoors in a public place where you’re not sure how many there have been vaccinated, especially if few others are wearing masks. Until we know more about the omicron variant, wearing a mask for now offers added protection against breakthrough cases.
Our primary care concierge doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter have been receiving many frantic calls from our patients about the omicron variant of the coronavirus. So let us say right up front that there’s no need to panic, and likely no need to be especially concerned at this point.
The fact is, it will be another week or two at least before researchers can get begin to get answers on what this new variant means in the fight against the pandemic. Early indications show the vaccinations will offer at least some measure of protection against it, and possibly a good deal.
Our concierge primary care doctors have been impressed with so many videos of young children receiving their coronavirus vaccines. Even many adults are scared of getting shots, which may be a reason why so many have declined so far to get one.
But if your kids are scared of shots, we have some tips on how to get them through the process with minimal tears and fears.
COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for kids between the ages of five and 11. Our concierge primary care doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter have been getting a lot of questions from concerned parents. Is it safe for my kids? Do they really need it? What about side effects?
The original clinical trials to find a COVID-19 vaccine excluded pregnant women. Many take that to mean the vaccines are unsafe for expectant mothers.
Even though later trials with pregnant women showed the vaccines are safe for them, the incorrect beliefs persist. Many still believe it’s dangerous for the mother, it’s dangerous for the baby or it can cause infertility. None of these things are true.
In the fight against COVID-19, the top weapon in our arsenal is the vaccine, which has been proven safe and effective. But when people refuse vaccination, or experience a breakthrough infection despite having received the vaccine, one extremely effective treatment is the use of monoclonal antibodies to stave off serious disease.
Our primary care doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter are surprised, however, at how few people are aware of this potentially lifesaving treatment. Florida opened a number of clinics where those not sick enough for hospitalization can receive monoclonal antibodies. We want to let you know what this treatment is and what it can do.
We’re proud of the Americans who followed health recommendations last year. We wore masks, practiced social distancing, and followed guidance on sanitary practices like frequent hand washing. These common sense measures helped keep down the number of people infected with the coronavirus. At the same time, they also helped keep the flu season in check with the U.S. seeing a record-low number of flu cases. And we warded off a possible “twindemic.”
And deaths for the 2019-2020 season were down an estimated 95 percent from a typical year. Last season, one child died from the flu. In comparison, 199 children died during the previous season and 144 died the season before that.
But our primary care doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter see a possible downside from what, at first glance, appears to be good news.
There are several reasons our concierge primary care doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter are often asked whether rapid at-home COVID-19 tests are are good idea.
- The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is so contagious.
- Only about 54 percent of Americans have been vaccinated against it.
- Many carriers have no symptoms.
- You can infect others before you become symptomatic.
- Even those vaccinated can become infected—although usually with milder cases.
- Children can’t yet receive vaccinations.
Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told the story of a teacher in Marin County, California, who came to work one day in May feeling fatigued, with a little nasal congestion. She brushed it off as allergies.
The teacher, who was not vaccinated against COVID-19, took off her mask just long enough to read to the class during story time. Two days later, she tested positive for the virus. So did half her elementary school class of 24. And so did a total of 27 others in other classes, their parents, and siblings.