What we know about the severity of omicron and possibility of ‘triple whammy’ this winter

As the omicron variant is spreading rapidly, top federal health officials warn it could bring a massive wave of new infections to the United States as early as January. There are now confirmed cases of omicron in at least 36 states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the new variant represents about three percent of positive U.S. cases. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the omicron variant is spreading rapidly, top federal health officials warn it could bring a massive wave of new infections to the U.S. as early as January.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, there are now confirmed cases of omicron in at least 36 states.

    The CDC estimates the new variant represents about 3 percent of positive U.S. cases.

    Dr. Saad Omer is an epidemiologist and the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

    Dr. Omer, thanks so much for being with us.

    Given what we know about omicron, or, maybe more important, what we don't know, how concerned should people be about it, and how — and should we expect omicron to become the dominant strain?

    Dr. Saad Omer, Yale Institute for Global Health: So, here's what we know.

    We know that it is a highly infectious strain. We know that it evades immunity, especially by two doses of the vaccines we use, but we also know that it responds to three doses. So people have better protection with three doses of vaccine.

    What we don't know is how severe it will be. So there are two ways of looking at severity. You look at severity at the individual level. It seems there are very early signals that there may be sort of at least the same or less severity per infection. But at the population level, if something is more infectious, it's three times more infectious and half as severe, it will still produce more hospitalizations.

    So I'm just giving you an example, so there — that, from a public health perspective, public health authorities should absolutely be on alert.

    From individual perspectives, we have a lot of self-efficacy. We can — we're not helpless in the face of this new variant. We can get vaccinated and boosted. We can take other precautions in the interest of public health and personal protection, like testing before gatherings, including family gatherings, like wearing masks, like having good ventilation, et cetera.

  • John Yang:

    Given what you said, that it may be more contagious, but less severe, but that will still result in a lot of hospitalizations, how worried are you about what apparently the CDC talks about as the worst-case scenario, the triple whammy of omicron, delta and seasonal flu?

  • Dr. Saad Omer:

    We may see a mixed picture.

    Influenza, this is a season where people are mixing. So, for the last couple of seasons, what has happened is, especially last season, there was a lot of social distancing that people had due to COVID. Therefore, you didn't get that big a wave of influenza.

    So, it is a possibility, but it's not a certainty. So there is some stochasticity. So, there is an element of chance still there. We are still learning about this variant, but also, again, as I said, we are not helpless bystanders in the face of this virus.

  • John Yang:

    You have talked and written a lot about misinformation, about the role of misinformation in what's going on. What's your prescription to fight that?

  • Dr. Saad Omer:

    Well, that's a really good question.

    So, I think the prescription to fight that is, first of all, at the overall government level, there are a lot — a lot of interventions governments can do, including the U.S. government. There's a really nice surgeon general's report that actually lays out a road map for responding to misinformation and disinformation at various levels, from the federal to the state to the local government.

    So, without going into the details of that report, that's a good recipe for that.

    At the individual level, what we can do is, for our friends and family, to make sure that they have access to the right information. So, the second thing is, we should be argumentative. The third thing is, we should lead with facts and empathy, rather than our instinct to correct the disinformation and, by doing so, repeating the disinformation.

    And then the last thing is to have a long engagement with our loved ones who have misinformation or disinformation readily accessible, rather than the expectation that, in one righteous conversation, we're going to convert people to the cause of vaccination and actually sort of remove them all to the — from the all the exposure they have to misinformation and disinformation around COVID and vaccines specifically.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Saad Omer of the Yale Institute for Global Health, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Saad Omer:

    My pleasure.

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