With at least 16 states now reporting cases of the Omicron variant, there’s a lot more we don’t know about the spread of the latest COVID-19 strain.
So what does this mean for families and the fight against COVID-19? This is what Dr. Richard Besser, former acting CDC director and chairman of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told “Face the Nation.”
The first cases of the Omicron variant have been discovered in the United States. How concerned should we be about this variant and do we know if vaccines will work against it?
It is important to take the emergence of this new species seriously until we know more about it. What we don’t know about Omicron right now is far greater than what we do know, but what we’ve learned so far is cause for concern. Omicron has more than 50 mutations. Many of them are in the spike protein region of the virus, the area that our current vaccines and some of our treatments target. That begs the question of whether it will be able to evade our immune system and the protection offered by our current vaccines or a previous COVID-19 infection. In a week or two we should have a clearer picture of whether that is indeed the case, and whether it causes more serious disease and is more transmissible than other strains.
We shouldn’t be surprised that cases of the Omicron variant have been discovered in the US. Since Omicron has already been documented in more than 30 countries, it was only a matter of time before it arrived here. Viruses don’t respect borders. More Omicron cases will follow. The scientists in South Africa who discovered the variant are to be commended for their speed and transparency in sharing this information with the world and for enabling other scientists to rapidly sequence viral isolates – that is, samples from infected individuals. – and study its impact.
Regardless of whether the Omicron variant triggers a wave of COVID-19, we still have no control over the Delta variant, the current dominant strain. Delta still kills nearly 1,000 people in America every day. We cannot allow complacency to strike so that this loss of life becomes acceptable, especially when so many of these deaths can be prevented. Our current vaccines work incredibly well against Delta, yet millions of people remain unvaccinated. Anyone who qualifies for a COVID-19 vaccine — whether it’s a primary series, a third shot for those with an immunocompromised immune system, or a booster shot for adults — should be getting those injections now as we enter the December holidays and winter months. enter. And be it Delta, Omicron, or some other variant, the public health playbook — masks in indoor public areas, testing, hand washing, ventilation — still provides highly effective tools for managing this pandemic, but only if we choose to use them. .
Should we expect more variants after Omicron? Will this just be part of our daily lives with COVID-19 strains?
No one is completely safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe from COVID-19. Until the transmission of COVID-19 is under control everywhere – and unless and until vaccines are available and easily accessible to everyone around the world – we can expect COVID-19 to continue to circulate freely, leading to additional new variants. A new strain that can escape our immune protection puts everyone at risk, even people who have been vaccinated or people who have had an infection before. Omicron may or may not turn out to be such a species, but even if it isn’t, a future species that does is very possible. While new variants could easily emerge in the United States, both Omicron and Delta have sprung up beyond our borders, and both quickly found their way here. Walls and travel restrictions can delay the arrival of a new virus for a short time, but they cannot prevent it.
The world should view this moment as a serious wake-up call when it comes to global vaccine equality. In the US, we are fortunate to have the resources to provide vaccines and boosters to our entire eligible population. Other countries simply don’t have the resources to do this, but rich countries continue to hoard vaccines: The latest figures show that about three-quarters of vaccines administered worldwide have been in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Nearly half of the world’s population is still unvaccinated. In Africa, with a population of 1.4 billion, nearly 90% of the continent’s population has not yet received a single injection. As long as these kinds of inequalities continue, new variants will have far too much time and space to spread and flourish. There is a moral, economic, and health imperative for the United States to redouble our own efforts and boost the efforts of other countries to help vaccinate the world. It is a matter of justice that the world must not continue to ignore.
When can school-age children in the US expect to be eligible for boosters?
Only persons 18 years and older are currently eligible for boosters. The CDC recently expanded its booster guidance and recommended that every adult eligible for a booster receive one. In light of Delta’s ongoing toll and the unknowns surrounding Omicron, I think guidance makes sense.
Pfizer recently announced that it will ask the FDA to approve booster shots for its vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds. If the FDA, CDC, and their respective advisory committees think it’s the right choice, then families and health care providers should follow that advice. And if science shows that levels of protection for vaccinated children begin to decline over time, boosters could become a reality for a larger proportion of our younger population. But we’re not there yet. When it comes to kids ages 5 and up, we need to make sure they get their primary set of shots, which is where we need to focus our energy and resources. As a pediatrician, I have seen how important it is for families to have their questions answered by a trusted healthcare provider. And when parents say ‘yes’ to vaccinating their children, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Every employer should offer paid time off so that parents and carers don’t have to choose between vaccinating their children and earning a salary.
Health experts seem divided on the issue of travel. With the holidays in full swing, would you advise against traveling on the Omicron variant now in circulation? How should families go about collecting for vacations with small children, both vaccinated and unvaccinated?
I was extremely grateful to be able to share Thanksgiving with my family and friends this year. We’ve done this safely by following CDC guidelines. Thanks to the safety and effectiveness of our current vaccines and the increased availability of home testing, Thanksgiving in 2021 was a lot more joyful for our family than it was in 2020, and we had the peace of mind that comes with doing things the right way. All too often, when it comes to returning to our normal lives, people still view public health guidelines as an enemy rather than an ally. When that guidance is thrown away or ignored, especially during the holidays when many people gather, we all suffer the consequences.
At this point, I see no reason to change my December holiday travel plans, but I recognize that each person has a different level of both actual risk and risk comfort. If Omicron is found to be more contagious than Delta, causing a more serious infection and posing a significant risk even to people who are fully vaccinated, collecting for the holidays would be a lot more risky than it is now and likely to be discouraged. In contrast, if Omicron doesn’t cause a more serious infection and current vaccines continue to protect, collection can be done fairly safely if we follow public health guidelines. We should soon know the answers to those questions.
A few days ago, President Biden announced stricter testing protocols for international travelers coming to the United States and expanded the federal mask requirement for planes, trains and other forms of public transportation. Regardless of Omicron, those steps make a lot of sense given Delta’s continued proliferation. I encourage families to follow CDC’s guidelines on leisure travel and any updates to those guidelines that may be released in the coming weeks as we learn more about Omicron. As a general principle, we should all keep in mind that we need to travel to any location domestically or internationally where the number of cases is high and vaccination coverage is low.
The Omicron variant could hurt the economy as we enter the holiday season and early 2022. How important is getting the pandemic under control for our economic recovery?
This pandemic has affected every community in America physically, emotionally and economically. However, the pain has not been felt evenly in our country and the recovery has been unfair. The same populations that are disproportionately at risk of suffering from COVID-19 — people of color and those on low wages — are the same who continue to struggle the most economically. At various times during the pandemic, Congress has provided vital economic aid to families who have prevented a dire economic situation from becoming truly catastrophic for many; in fact, thanks in large part to this increased support, the poverty rate in the US has actually fallen in 2020. But providing temporary support that only moves us past an immediate threat to public health is insufficient when we finally address the fundamental barriers to economic prosperity and health that still exist in America.
The Build Back Better Act recently passed by the House of Representatives would be an important step forward in our efforts to give everyone in America the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. Among other steps, the bill would provide health insurance to millions of people living in states that have refused to expand their Medicaid programs; extend a higher child tax credit for one year and make people with no or low wages permanently eligible for the full amount; make major investments in affordable housing and infant nutrition programs, and significantly increase access to childcare and paid leave. These measures will truly help all Americans experience economic security and healthier lives during the pandemic and beyond.