Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Early research suggests booster is best protection against omicron, variant still a threat to unvaccinated

(Courtesy Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — As the next Covid-19 wave approaches, caused by the latest strain, omicron, health officials are bracing for a potentially difficult start to the new year. Hospitals are expected to reach capacity and officials are recommending people get their boosters (or vaccine) if they haven’t already to help dodge a breakthrough infection.

Though the contagious omicron variant is believed thus far to result in milder illness, it is still perceived as a threat to the unvaccinated, explained Dr. ​​David Priest, chief safety and quality officer for Novant Health, at a Tuesday news briefing. Emerging data suggest three doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine is ideal, significantly increasing antibody response and protection against omicron.

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Only 30% of the U.S. (62 million people) has received a booster dose, compared to the 60% of the nation’s population (204 million) that is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statewide, 2.2 million people in North Carolina have received an additional shot.

New Hanover County’s vaccinated population remains around 61% (or 142,652 people), with 93% of the 65-and-up crowd fully vaccinated; the health department has independently administered 182 boosters/third doses in August; 414 in September; 1,900 in October; 2,364 doses in November; and 1,065 doses in the first 20 days of December.

So far, researchers have determined omicron’s dissemination is four to six times that of the original strain of Covid-19. It took three weeks for omicron — discovered in South African labs during Thanksgiving — to officially climb from the CDC’s “variant of concern” to dominating Covid-19 cases in the country by 73%. First discovered in North Carolina on Dec. 10, omicron now makes up over 95% of new cases in the southeast, according to the CDC.

“In general, a person who has [the] omicron variant will infect three to five people around them, which makes for the rapid spread of the virus,” Priest said.

It also appears to have a shorter incubation period, possibly just three days. That means there’s a smaller window for carriers to recognize their symptoms and get tested before becoming contagious.

“There’s some talk anecdotally that clinical disease from omicron may be less severe,” Priest added. “But we don’t know that definitively just yet.”

The infectious disease expert reported the overwhelming majority of Covid patients in Novant’s hospitals are unvaccinated.

“That’s been very consistent for some time,” he said. “In fact, all but one patient on a ventilator in our system is currently unvaccinated.”

He said patients who are vaccinated or require hospitalization are usually older with one or more underlying medical issues and often have not received a booster.

Now a year into the vaccine rollout, New Hanover County Health Director David Howard said the county is in a better position to fight a forthcoming wave. Sufficient supplies are available and the county is reportedly prepared to reach out to the state for additional resources if necessary. Dr. Priest also indicated Novant Health has the capacity to handle the anticipated volume, but was clear the system is bracing for “another difficult January.”

“The biggest thing we must continue emphasizing is the importance of being proactive rather than reactive,” Howard said. “Vaccination, boosters, mask usage, social distancing, washing hands, getting tested and staying home if you feel sick remain the best tools in our fight against COVID, and while they have been stressed endlessly thus far, we will continue to remind the public of their importance.”

New Hanover County dropped its mask mandate in November, and its Health and Human Services Board is now considering reinstating the measure. Earlier this week, the board scheduled a Jan. 18 public hearing on the issue, which it is required to do at least 10 days before imposing a health rule.

The last time the mask mandate was initiated in August, health director Howard issued an “order of abatement” to put it in place as soon as possible, and the public hearing was held after the fact. The county manager must consent and approve such an abatement.

But the county’s chief communication officer said that is unlikely at this time.

“A health abatement has not been discussed and likely won’t be,” Jessica Loeper said.

New Hanover County Public Health offers free Covid-19 vaccines and boosters by appointment at TakeMyShot.NC.gov. It also accommodates walk ins.

People are eligible for the booster shot six months after receiving the second dose of Pfizer/Moderna and two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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