CLEVELAND — It’s official. Omicron is in Ohio. So, what now?
We reached out to University Hospitals for some help interpreting the available data on the new variant in town. Dr. Keith Armitage is the Medical Director of the Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health. He told News 5 when a new variant enters the scene, health experts start considering three questions:
•Is it more contagious?
•Is it more virulent, meaning does it cause more severe illness?
•Does it escape immunity from vaccines and prior infection?
The most concrete answer we have so far seems to be for that third question.
“This variant escapes some of the immunity from vaccines and from prior infection,” Armitage said. “So, two doses of Pfizer vaccine, for instance, don’t give a high level of protection against getting infected, although it does seem to protect you against severe disease, hospitalization.” And, he added, getting that booster will offer you better protection.
In one South African study of about two dozen people, antibodies were 40% less potent against Omicron than the variant that was in circulation last summer. That means we can expect to see more breakthrough infections as Omicron continues its rapid spread across the United States. But how sick will those patients actually get?
“In general, so far Omicron in South Africa, we’re not seeing hospitalizations,” said Armitage. “We don’t know if this is because it’s a milder variant, or it’s really primarily initially infecting young people or vaccinated people.” While these numbers aren’t Omicron specific, we do have an understanding of how the pandemic has shifted in South Africa in recent weeks, since Omicron entered the scene.
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases reports about 30% of hospitalized patients in recent weeks have been seriously ill. Their hospital stays are shorter on average, just 2.8 days instead of eight. And only 3% of hospitalized patients have died recently. That number was 20% during the country’s earlier outbreaks.
While it’s too early to tell for sure, there’s a chance Omicron might be a welcome change of pace from the brutal Delta variant and the surge it’s driving right now in northeast Ohio. Could it be, Omicron is potentially a good thing?
“It's a bad thing that there may be a new variant even more contagious than Delta, but it may be a good thing if it produces mild illness.” That’s a big “if” from Armitage, and only time will tell. But there is reason for cautious optimism. A virus is only trying to survive, after all. It doesn’t necessarily need to kill us to do that.
“Variants compete with each other based on ease of spread and infectivity,” said Armitage. “But it doesn’t give the variant an advantage to produce a severe illness or not. So the only thing that helps the variants compete with each other is how rapidly they spread.”
While we wait for more data, remember Delta is still very much here, and we know for sure that Delta is bad. Please wear your mask, get your vaccine, wash your hands, and hope for the best. Like all our health care providers, Armitage is worn out.
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