Omicron uncertainty: New boosters, school walkouts, and record hospitalizations

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Photo by Shvets Production / Pexels
Photo by Shvets Production / Pexels

With the new Omicron variant surging throughout the United States, the CDC has reported an all-time high in hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases. Despite these startling numbers, the CDC has released new guidelines for public safety, which have left many scratching their heads and wondering if another Omicron-specific booster is necessary.

New Omicron boosters
The leading COVID-19 vaccine administrator, Pfizer, announced last week that it has come up with an Omicron-specific booster. It has begun issuing doses to healthcare workers and immunocompromised individuals. However, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla says the vaccine won't be available to the public until March. Given the frightening surge of the Omicron variant, experts say this will be too late.

According to the New York Times, the CDC has approved the fourth dose for the immunocompromised and says it may be ready for administration by as early as this week.

Moderna is also currently working on an Omicron-specific booster and expects its version to soon head to clinical trials. Both Pfizer and Moderna CEOs are warning the public that these rapidly produced boosters do not provide long-term protection from the virus, especially when a lack of widespread vaccination means additional variants are imminent.

Bourla said that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are not enough to protect against this new variant and highly recommends getting the latest booster while waiting on an Omicron booster to come in the next few months.

Moderna's CEO, Stephanie Blancel, also said that an additional booster in the fall of 2022 will likely be needed, as the effects of the current one will wear off by then.

Experts agree with Blancel and Bourla, saying that two doses are no longer effective in protecting against the newest variants.

However, the effectiveness of the vaccines is complicated, as the rollout and administration have taken much longer than anticipated. For those who have received their first and second doses within the last six months, their antibodies are still strong enough to defend against most COVID-19 variants. For those who received their first two doses over six months ago, and have not received a booster, that effectiveness is relatively weak.

On Monday, January 17, 63% of the US population was fully vaccinated. However, this data does not account for people who received their vaccines six months ago and have thus lost most of its effect. Only 36% of the population has received a booster.

What about the children?
Children who are too young to receive any vaccine or booster remain some of the most vulnerable, which has led to recent backlash against schools that have attempted to resume classes despite the onslaught of the Omicron variant.

From Oakland to Denver, high school students are sharing petitions and walking out of class in protest of public schools that refuse to take COVID-19 precautions seriously amid the newest surge. On Tuesday, January 11, New York City students walked out and called on the mayor to issue mandatory remote-learning options and safety precautions as COVID cases rise.

On the other side of the spectrum are parents, who insist they are unable to provide adequate at-home learning environments for their younger children. In Chicago, parents held a rally and submitted a lawsuit against the Chicago Teachers Union, urging it to end remote learning and reopen classrooms, despite the surge. Parents argue that they are unable to take time off from work to stay home during a continuing global pandemic and care for their children.

Confusing new guidelines
Part of the fault lies with the CDC, which released new guidelines for those infected by Omicron in late December. The CDC now says that, instead of staying isolated for 10-14 days after a positive test result, asymptomatic people now only need to isolate for five days before returning to work. It now also says there is no requirement for people who were symptomatic and are now symptom-free to get tests in order to end their isolation.

After the initial release of these new guidelines, the CDC failed to present a scientific brief. Now, many wonder if these guidelines are in the best interest of the people or the capitalist system, which guides our economy and depends on business activity.

Even the American Medical Association noted the inconsistency of the CDC. Following the new guidelines, it released a statement saying, "With hundreds of thousands of new cases daily and more than a million positive reported cases on January 3, tens of thousands — potentially hundreds of thousands of people — could return to work and school infectious if they follow the CDC's new guidance on ending isolation after five days without a negative test. Physicians are concerned that these recommendations put our patients at risk and could further overwhelm our health care system."

Furthermore, scientists are now saying the newest CDC guidelines do not account for the sudden surge in the Omicron variant. Jessica Malaty Rivera, a senior advisor at the Pandemic Prevention Institute, said to NPR last week, "They do not have that detailed data for Omicron, and they won't for weeks. They [made] this decision based on what they had from Beta and Delta, which don't have the same transmission dynamics as we are seeing in Omicron."

Omicron's uniqueness and best practices
One of the reasons Omicron has been so infectious is because it is vastly unlike any variant we have yet to encounter. A study out of the New England Journal of Medicine shows the reason for this: the Omicron variant has 32 changes in its spikes from the original COVID-19 variant. Scientists have found that just 20 changes in a mutated variant are significant enough to infect those who have received the vaccine.

A Yale study also found that Omicron, unlike the Delta and Beta variants, can evade previous vaccinations and overcome immunity gained from having previously contracted the disease. Those who have been vaccinated and received the boosters have the greatest level of immunity against the Omicron variant.

Scientists and doctors are now saying that the best protection against Omicron is to make sure you are vaccinated and boosted. If you contract Omicron before getting the booster, doctors still suggest getting the shot. However, they advise patients to wait at least 30 days for the infection to clear out of their systems.

Doctors are also warning people who are sick to not get any vaccine. "Your body's immune response to whatever it's fighting is going to be directed toward that pathogen," explained Alyson Kelvin, virologist and vaccine researcher in the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

Doctors also advise against people purposefully contracting COVID in "chicken pox party"-like events to receive immunity.

Hospitals are at capacity with Omicron patients. The CDC reports that Washington state is seeing more hospitalizations now than ever before, and daily cases are shooting up to nearly 12,000.

While it may seem that children are less likely to encounter serious side effects, the risk is still there. Dr. Dean A. Blumberg, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children's Hospital, reported that nearly 29,000 children were hospitalized since the start of the pandemic, and a thousand have died.

Due to its novelty, there are still many things doctors do not know about Omicron. We are yet to know whether or not the newest strain also has links to multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a disease that can cause lingering heart damage and is often fatal. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome has shown up in children four to six weeks after recovering from COVID-19.

As new facts, guidelines, and statistics continue to slam us, one thing is for certain: continuing to stay home, wear a mask, and social-distance is the best route to protect yourself and your loved ones from the potential risks of the newest COVID-19 variant.