By Annette Pinder
Here we are again, experiencing the alternative reality that brought fear to everyone during the early days of the pandemic. We shouldn’t be here, but here we are. Why? Because fear of the only way out of the pandemic — our truly miraculous vaccines — have been a source of misinformation and confusion that has resulted in many people believing that the rumors they hear are more valid than the information provided by scientists who continue to assure us of their safety. That misinformation, fear, and hesitancy has actually resulted in one form of the virus replacing another — first Alpha, then Beta, followed by Delta, and now Omicron, which has significantly increased transmissibility.
Now, as we wonder what will come next, we have only to look back on the wisdom of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt meant that being fearful at the time was making things worse. And now, too, the more than 38 percent of people in the United States who are not yet vaccinated are making things much worse and fueling the pandemic. How? Put simply, when a virus has an easy host (an unvaccinated person), it is easy for it to mutate into a much more contagious and possibly more deadly form, and that is exactly what is happening now.
Since January 2020, 824,000 people in the United States, and 54.7 million people worldwide have lost their lives due to COVID. A total of 50,479,372 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States as of December 15, 2021. The current 7-day moving average of new deaths is 1,180, reflecting an increase of 8.2% compared with the previous 7-day moving average. While the Delta variant was considered the most contagious variant a few weeks ago, accounting for nearly 100 percent of all infections worldwide, Omicron is quickly replacing Delta, doubling every two to three days and spreading rapidly across the country. The average of 500,000 new COVID cases daily in the U.S. is expected to soon grow to one million daily cases.
What makes Omicron so different, say scientists, is that it has accumulated over 50 mutations, including about 30 in the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that the mRNA vaccines teach our immune systems to attack. Omicron’s higher transmissibility along with its ability to evade protection of our current vaccines presents a serious global risk. The CDC predicts that we will see more than a million new cases and a 73 percent increase in Covid deaths by early January.
Recently, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, had 930 students test positive for Covid, representing the first cluster of the Omicron variant. While students had been fully vaccinated, most were not boosted. While the current two-dose vaccines are preventing severe illness and hospitalization, scientists now say that boosters are required for anyone eligible. Cornell and many other colleges and universities, was forced to shut down and send students home in the midst of final exams. With Ithaca located only 154.5 miles from Buffalo, we knew it would not be long before Omicron began knocking on our door to ultimately replace the Delta variant. And if we don’t learn our lesson this time, we may be looking at a much more serious variant that overtakes it Omicron.
So, how do we get through this? Scientists offer the following guidance and information.
Get vaccinated and boosted. Everyone ages 5 and older should get vaccinated as soon as possible. Given Omicron’s high number of mutations, transmissibility, and ability to escape the protection of two mRNA vaccines, those eligible should make an appointment now to get a booster shot. To date, 38 percent of eligible individuals are not yet fully vaccinated, and only one out of six people have received boosters.
Know the symptoms. Current COVID-19 symptoms include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. However, those who become ill as a result of the Omicron variant are more likely to experience a cough, fatigue, congestion, and runny nose, which can make it difficult to distinguish Omicron from a cold. Getting tested to prevent spread is extremely important.
Be vigilant in practicing recommended safety measures. Wear a mask in public indoor settings, and preferably either an KF94, N95 or KN95 mask, because they provide much better protection against the spread of variants. Wash your hands frequently. Practice safe physical distancing, and stay away from crowds, even outdoors. Keep indoor gatherings, even with those fully vaccinated, to a minimum. If you think you may have been exposed to someone who has the virus, get tested, and stay home if you get a positive result. Refer to CDC guidance regarding exposure and testing positive for COVID.
If you have any questions about COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, talk to your health provider. To make an appointment for a vaccine close to your home, visit https://www.vaccines.gov. Also, see the Erie County Department of Health for updated vaccine sites, including walk-in options. For upcoming vaccine clinics and ways to arrange for an at-home vaccination, visit the Erie County Department of health at https://www3.erie.gov/covid or call 716-858-7690.