COVID cases are exploding, right when we’re all trying to relax for the holidays, proving that although we may be done with the virus, the virus is not done with us. How can you stay safe out there, from Delta and the “more transmissible” variant Omicron? Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, appeared on ABC’s This Week opposite host Jonathan Karl this morning to give you some perspective—and some life-saving advice. Read on for all six essential tips—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Karl said it seemed like everyone he knew was getting Omicron. “Why aren’t you at a more alarmed level of concern about this?” he asked Jha, who has approached this latest surge with equanimity. “First of all, it is concerning,” answered Jha. “I mean, obviously infections are spreading quickly. They’re rising very, very rapidly. And if this was March of 2020, I would be panicking. It would be a very bad situation. It’s not March of 2020. We’re seeing a lot of infections in vaccinated people, but because they are vaccinated and many of them boosted, these infections are very, very mild and that’s the big saving grace. And the second—and the part that does concern me more—is that we are seeing still obviously unvaccinated Americans getting infected at very high rates. And that’s the group I’m worried about because that’s the group that’s gonna end up in the hospital. That’s the end group that’s gonna end up in an ICU. So we really have to look at this in a very different light for vaccinated people. This is a very different infection than for the unvaccinated.”
“Omicron is a variant that has a lot of immune escape,” said Jha. “All of those mutations you’ve been hearing about means our antibodies just work a little bit less efficiently. And so if you get a high enough dose of this virus, it’ll break through that first wall of your immune system, but your immune system has a second wall, which really prevents severe illness. So if we think about all of these cases, we’re hearing about most people are reporting kind of a mild cold-ike symptoms, a couple of days of feeling lousy, and then they get better—that’s the vaccine working against Omicron. The biggest part of it is all that immune escape is leading to a lot of breakthrough infections, less among people who are boosted, but still a problem. But it’s not leading to significant consequences for those who’ve been vaccinated.”
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“I think this is the most important part of this moment in this pandemic,” said Jha about whether or not hospitalizations are a bit more important than counting cases. “We have to do a shift. Look, for two years, infections always preceded hospitalizations, which preceded death. So you could look at infections and know what was coming, even through the Delta wave. That was true because it was largely unvaccinated people who were getting infected.” Now, “we’re moving to a phase where a few you’re vaccinated, and particularly if you’re boosted, you might get an infection. It might be a couple of days of not feeling so great, but you’re gonna bounce back. That’s very different than what we have seen in the past. So I no longer think infections generally should be the major metric. Obviously we can continue to track infections among under vaccinated people, because those people will end up in the hospital at the same rate, but we really have to focus on hospitalizations and deaths now.”
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Is Omicron less severe than Delta? “This is the big question,” said Jha. “And it’s obviously critically important. What we know about South Africa is they just had a massive Delta wave over the summer into the fall. So a lot of those unvaccinated people have just recovered from an infection. So the question is, what about people who have not had a recent infection and are not vaccinated? How will they do? We don’t have very good data. It is possible that it might be a little bit milder. Obviously. I hope it’ll be a lot milder, but I don’t know that we have data on that. And right now it’s reasonable to assume that even if it’s milder, it’s not milder enough, we’re still gonna see, I think, a lot of unvaccinated people end up in the hospital.”
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“What does 2022 look like? Is it the year we finally get this, this thing under control? Or are we in this for the long haul?” asked Karl. “I think it is definitely the year we get this under control,” said Jha, “and let me explain why. This holiday season, no one thinks that this is the holiday season we were hoping for, but contrasted to last year, it’s so much better. Well, next holiday season, I doubt COVID will be completely gone. It’ll be endemic. It’ll be around, but it’ll be much, much better than this year because while the virus continues to change, so do we—we’re building better tools. We now a new Pfizer pill. That’ll be widely available, hopefully by earlier part of this new year, that’ll be a really important tool. More people will get vaccinated. Unfortunately, a lot of people will get infected, but that will build population immunity. We’ll have more variants. I’m actually convinced that we’ll have more variants, but each of them will impact us less and less. And we will get to a point, certainly by the end of this new year coming up, we will get to a point where we’ll see new waves of infection, it will not have a big effect on hospitals. People will go on, people will not get really sick and die and we will learn to live with this virus and it will stop being so disruptive to our lives.”
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Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don’t travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don’t go indoors with people you’re not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don’t visit any of these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.