Sounds like a contradiction when the Centers for Disease Control tells us that the Omicron variant for COVID-19 is “unlikely to develop severe infections,” but a caveat exists: They are talking about those without “underlying conditions” and/or ones who are not older than 65. For those of us who are over 65, had conditions like COPD, and live in a county where most of the population are considered “senior citizens,” COVID and Omicron represent a massive threat.
I’m 74 and has COPD. My wife is over 65 and has serious asthma. Even though we are fully vaccinated, with the third “booster” shot, we continue to wear masks everywhere we go, keep social distancing and stay away from those we don’t know.
“What is absolutely clear is there is a lower rate of hospitalization with our omicron patients in our hospital system,” Dr. James Musser, chief of pathology and generic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital, tells the media. “That does not necessarily mean that this variant is quote-unquote ‘less virulent.’ The jury’s still out on that. What we know now is that … if you are immunized and, more importantly, if you are boosted, you’re going to stay out of substantial trouble.”
As usual, there’s a big “but” in the doctor’s warning. He and other medical experts warn that the millions of Americans who are not fully vaccinated “remain vulnerable to more serious disease from the most transmissible coronavirus to date.”
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a member of President Biden’s COVID-19 task force, warns that man “variables still exist” on what does or does not make the net variant dangerous.
“Have you previously had an infection? Were you vaccinated? How many doses of vaccine, and was it more than six months ago? So in some ways, this is almost like a calculus problem. It’s got a lot of moving parts to it, and we’re trying to figure it out,” Osterholm tells Yasmeen Abutaleb of The Washington Post.
Doctors also caution that far more people will become infected with omicron simply because of its transmissibility. If even a small fraction of those land in the hospital, they worry that health-care systems that are already short-staffed because of delta infections could be overwhelmed — with potentially dire results for those needing critical care as a result of car accidents, heart attacks, strokes, or any number of things that bring people to emergency rooms.
“We need to be respectful of the fact that our hospital system has been under this kind of duress for such a long time,” said Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “We need to do everything we can to not allow the situation, where there’s such crowding and such intensity that we can’t optimally take care of the people who get severe disease.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President’s chief medical adviser, warns that the large increases in infections will still put additional strains on the nation’s health system.
“We’re going to have a real challenge to the health-care delivery system — namely the number of beds, the number of ICU beds and even the number of health-care providers,” Fauci said in an interview with the Post. “Even vaccinated people are getting breakthrough infections. So if you get enough nurses and doctors infected, they are going to temporarily be out of action. And if you get enough of them out of action, you could have double stress on the health-care system.”
To date, about 32% of Americans have received the “full dosage” of vaccine and the booster shot, but that percentage drops by almost half in Floyd County, where too many residents still resist the vaccines and fail to take other precautions like wearing masks or keeping distance.
On Twitter, emergency medicine professor Craig Spencer at Columbia University says, “every boosted patient ween in the emergency room has had no difficulty breathing or suffering shortness of breath. But every patient not vaccinated was hospitalized, many of them placed in intensive care.”
“No matter your political affiliation, or thoughts on masks, or where you live in this country, as an ER doctor you’d trust with your life if you rolled into my emergency room at 3 am, I promise you that you’d rather face the oncoming Omicron wave vaccinated,” Spencer wrote on Twitter.
Hospitals report that more and more children are now hospitalized by the virus. In New York, state officials reported four times higher admissions of children under 18 with half of those under age five.
It’s not yet clear whether older, boosted individuals and those with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, face the same lowered risk with omicron. Answering such questions is key to assessing the likely trajectory of the variant in the United States because the nation’s population is older and less healthy than those of many of its global peers.
On Tuesday, the United States again set a new record for new cases, topping 267,000, depleting hospital staffs and sending the nation into a new year is more questions than answers, and no relief yet in sight.