Could omicron lead to more breakthrough COVID cases? Here’s what we know

For the first time in nearly two months, the United States is averaging more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases daily. Roughly one-third of states have also now detected the new omicron variant. John Yang reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the first time in nearly two months, the United States is averaging more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day. This comes as roughly one-third of states have now detected the new variant, Omicron.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, Delta continues to be the most dominant COVID variant, both in the United States and around the world. But with overall cases on the rise, questions abound about the Omicron variant.

    Katelyn Jetelina is an epidemiologist at the University of Texas health Science Center's School of Public Health in Dallas. And she writes Your Local Epidemiologist on Substack.

    Katelyn Jetelina, thanks so much for joining us.

    First off, given what we know about Omicron and, maybe more importantly, what we don't know, how concerned should people be about it in America?

    Katelyn Jetelina, University of Texas Health Science Center: Yes, what we do know is concerns, but we also don't know a lot.

    And I think that there is a lot of hope that we don't want to lose at the same time. And so there's this balance between let's wait to see what the science is going to say and continue to be vigilant, because, like you said, our house is already on fire right now with Delta. And we really need to address that threat right now.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Mayor de Blasio in New York announced a vaccine mandate for private employers. What do you think of that step?

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    I think it's the right step.

    Vaccines do a lot. They reduce transmission. We have a lot of reasons to believe that boosters will play a significant role against Omicron. But, you know, vaccines aren't going to do it all. It's not going to be the magic ticket. It's going to be a combination of public health mitigation measures, which includes rapid antigen testing, includes ventilating spaces, and includes wearing good masks indoors.

  • John Yang:

    How likely — I mean, we had this sort of concern when the Delta variant emerged and now the Omicron variant is emerging.

    Are we going to continue to see this virus transmute itself, create different variants? And how should we be thinking about this or how should we be worrying about them as they arrive?

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, you're right. This is going to continue to mutate. Viruses mutate. We expect this, especially with high transmission rates right now.

    The more opportunity we give this virus to jump from person to person, the more it's going to mutate and the more it is going to change. I think what we need to understand is the direction that it's changing, as well as the severity and how well our vaccines continue to hold up against these changes, at the same time, have solutions in case they don't.

    For example, the vaccine manufacturers are on top of it, creating an Omicron-specific vaccine, in the off-chance that we do need it, and so really being a proactive game, rather than reactive, and staying educated on how this is changing and why.

  • John Yang:

    On your blog, you take a lot of questions from your readers. We have asked our viewers to submit some questions. And we want to put them to you.

    Dan Patt from Sarasota, Florida; "I am fully vaccinated. Am I more, less or the same at risk of getting COVID because of the Omicron variant? And if I do contract this variant, am I more, less or the same risk of spreading the virus?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    That is a really good question. And he's not going to like my answer, because we don't know yet.

    You know, I think that, if he is not fully — if he is not boosted, he certainly should go get a booster. We have reason to believe that a booster will broaden the protection, not just against Delta, but also other variants of concern like Omicron.

    We think, our hypothesis is that we're going to have a lot more breakthrough cases with Omicron. But we are optimistic that those with the three — or boosted will have a less likelihood of severe disease and death.

    Like I said, we don't know the data yet. We should be expecting it to come within the next week or so.

  • John Yang:

    And then we have from Cathy Webb in Ames, Iowa. We're, of course, approaching the holiday season, when a lot of people are going to be traveling.

    She just simply asks: "Is it safe to travel?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, if you are fully vaccinated, if you're boosted, if you wear a really good mask — and I'm talking N95s — you should be very confident in that protection bubble you have around you.

    Thankfully, also, airlines are still requiring masks. They are enforcing masks as well. So I am really not concerned about the airplane specifically. I would be more worried about exposure getting to and from the airplane. And this is really where you need to distance yourself, continue to wear a mask and remain vigilant.

    But then, once you land, wherever you are going, before your Christmas break, do rapid antigen tests. Use that as a — quote, unquote — "day pass" to make sure that everyone that is at that holiday family gathering is as safe as possible.

  • John Yang:

    Along those same lines, Dr. Fauci said yesterday that they may lift the South Africa travel ban on visitors coming into the United States.

    And just today, the CDC stepped up its advisory against travel, Americans traveling to more places like France and Portugal. Overall, what do you think of this — these travel advisories and bans both coming and going?

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, travel bans to a few select countries is not a public health, evidence-based policy. It just doesn't work really well.

    It would work great if we shut down all borders. But we didn't do that, And we are a bit delayed. Omicron right now is in 49 different countries. And so, yes, we may slow down spread, maybe seeds from South Africa, but it doesn't mean it is not coming from other places.

    And so what that means to me is that our response on the ground in the United States really needs to be proactive with testing and vaccines.

  • John Yang:

    Now, from Michelle Joyce in Eugene, Oregon.

  • She says:

    "I'm a parent, and I'm very concerned to hear there has been an increase in child hospitalizations in South Africa for children under 5. Is this variant more dangerous for kids?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Yes, I'm a parent of two under 2 as well, and so I have been paying really close attention to this. And that is true.

    It looks like Omicron — kids with Omicron are going to the hospital at higher rates than with Delta. But it's really important to realize that we don't know why yet. And I think it's really important to keep in mind that what happens in one country doesn't necessarily happen in others.

    The landscapes are very different, vaccination rates, behaviors, environments, genetics. And so we need to track the epidemiological data on the ground in the United States to ensure that this is a generalizable signal.

  • John Yang:

    And from Kaitlyn Jeffers in Los Angeles: "How likely is it for someone with natural antibodies post-COVID infection to be reinfected with the Omicron variant?"

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    So, this is actually the one piece of solid scientific data we have gotten so far with Omicron.

    It came out about two or three days ago. And it was not very great. It showed that reinfection rate with Omicron is about three times higher than with Delta. And so, in other words, infection-induced immunity is not doing a great job at stopping Omicron. And this is really why the WHO, the CDC and every epidemiologist I know is recommending vaccinations right now, especially boosters.

  • John Yang:

    Katelyn Jetelina, Your Neighborhood Epidemiologist, thank you very much.

  • Katelyn Jetelina:

    Thanks for having me.

Listen to this Segment