CH@T: The new COVID-19 variant has created alarm. But it is time to panic?

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As Chatham County nears the milestone of 100 COVID-related deaths and a new variant has sparked concerns about the seemingly never-ending pandemic, the News + Record spoke with Mike Zelek and Eric Wolak to get updated information. Zelek is the director of the Chatham County Public Health Department; Wolak is the COO and chief nursing officer at Chatham Hospital.

Now there’s Omicron: one science writer likened the Omicron variant of COVID-19 scenario to a puzzle. “It’s a picture of the sky,” he wrote. “No, wait the sea. Oh, a ship.” Another described the news about Omicron as “a super weird moment where we know a thing is happening, but we don’t know what.” What’s the best way to summarize what we know about it?

ERIC WOLAK: It’s best for all of us to remember that the Omicron variant is still COVID. While we know it has more mutations than we have seen in the past, we do not yet know how/if those mutations will impact transmission rates and/or sickness.

MIKE ZELEK: We have had many moments in the pandemic where there was something new that time and research helped us better understand, and this is another one of those moments. Right now, I see a blurry photo of a coronavirus. We know generally what it is and what we can do to protect ourselves (namely, vaccination and masks), but additional information will help clarify the picture.

For those of us not in the medical field, what’s the difference between the Delta variant and Omicron?

WOLAK: They are both COVID viruses, but the Omicron variant has more mutations from the original virus than the Delta does. Part of these mutations is the number of spike proteins, which the Omicron has much more of. The concerns within the science community are that these increased numbers of spike proteins could indicate that the virus is more transmissible. However, this is just speculation and not much is really known yet. It will probably be several weeks before we have a better understanding of Omicron’s transmissibility, physiologic impact, and susceptibility to vaccines.

ZELEK: Delta had changes compared to previous variants that made it is easier to spread. Omicron has additional changes that may do the same, but we are still learning. Think of it like a key. Delta was able to open more doors than Alpha, and there is potential that Omicron can open more doors than Delta based on these additional changes. But vaccines are like an alarm system that is likely to still go off and protect you with Omicron. This is something health experts are working hard to better understand.

Bottom line: what should our “freak out” level be with Omicron?

WOLAK: There should be no “freak-out” whatsoever. The current consensus is that even if Omicron is more transmissible, it is still passed on by droplets and there is a no reason to assume that the vaccines will not be effective against it. While there are questions on the degree of effectiveness, our best tools right now against both the Delta and Omicron variants are vaccination and mask wearing.

ZELEK: It is not the time to freak out, but rather take the actions that have worked well to protect us to this point. At the top of the list is getting vaccinated, including a booster shot. This was already important, especially as we move into winter, and Omicron is all the more reason to do so.

Are ever-evolving variants from here to eternity the new normal?

WOLAK: This all depends on how we respond. If we can slow transmission by 90%+ of the population getting vaccinated and us wearing masks when in close proximity to those with unknown vaccination status, then we still have a chance of ending this pandemic sooner rather than later. Alternatively, not getting vaccinated and being physically close to other unvaccinated people will probably mean more variants to come.

ZELEK: We can expect to see more variants, but that does not mean they will hit as hard as previous ones. They are, however, a reminder of the importance of protecting ourselves by getting vaccinated.

(Note: 56% of Chatham residents are partially vaccinated and 53% are fully vaccinated. Across North Carolina, those numbers are 62% and 58%, respectively.)

How has the latest news on the COVID front changed, if at all, the relevance and importance of booster shots? (And remind us of when boosters are recommended in each of our own personal vaccination timelines.)

WOLAK: The biggest change right now is that COVID numbers are increasing, as are hospitalizations, which will probably be followed by increasing deaths in the coming weeks. This increase is still being driven by the Delta variant and is probably a reflection on us decreasing our guard again transmission by not wearing masks and/or being physically distant. Currently, Chatham County’s total population is only 53% vaccinated, and only 59% for those 12 and older. This means that there are a lot of people in Chatham County that are at high risk of being infected, getting sick, and/or passing the COVID virus on to others. The best thing people can do right now is get vaccinated, and if vaccinated to get a booster. If you have been fully vaccinated (two weeks after your last dose) for six months or longer and are 18 and older, then you can now get a booster from either Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson.

ZELEK: Boosters are now recommended for all adults. If someone received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, they should get a booster at least six months after completing their two-dose vaccine series. If they received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they should get a booster at least two months after getting the one-dose vaccine. Eligible people can get any of the authorized vaccines as a booster shot. While this recommendation was based on data that did not take into account Omicron, the emergence of a new variant makes it all the more important to add this protection.

Finish this story: An unvaccinated guy walks into a bar ...

WOLAK: An unvaccinated guys walks into a bar wearing a mask that covers his nose and mouth. He cleans his hands and orders a beer and takes a seat outside six feet or farther from others to enjoy it. He is enjoying his beer alone, as he is unvaccinated and does not want to risk having an asymptomatic infection and passing the virus on to others.

ZELEK: He may not get COVID this round, but eventually he will. Delta and Omicron show us that the virus isn’t going away and we need to strengthen our defenses.

Chatham is approaching 100 deaths (from Covid) now, and we know transmission rates are still high. Given what we know about vaccination levels here, and the fact that Thanksgiving is in our rear-view mirror and Christmas is coming up, what’s your advice about self-care and family (and community) well-being and health this next month or two?

WOLAK: The best advice I can continue to give is to get vaccinated, get a booster if you are vaccinated and have not yet received a booster, and only socialize with other vaccinated individuals.

ZELEK: The good news is we have vaccine for everyone ages 5 and older. Getting vaccinated and boosted, to me, is the best form of self-care and reduces risk significantly during the holidays and beyond. Though I am still cautious, I feel much more at ease having received my booster shot.

We have been through a lot over the past 21 months. Despite these challenges and pandemic fatigue, I hope the holidays bring comfort, healing, and togetherness to families across Chatham.

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