There’s some early indication that the omicron variant of COVID-19 may produce less severe illness than the delta variant, but more data is needed to know for certain, and what remains unknown should be reason for concern, according to a UAB infectious disease expert.
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, UAB’s director of infectious diseases and a renowned expert on viruses, told reporters during a Tuesday briefing that it’s still unclear how omicron might impact those with underlying medical conditions.
“What if you’re pregnant? What if you have diabetes? What if you’re on chemotherapy? What if you’re on an immunosuppressive?,” Marrazzo said. She’s also concerned about long COVID with omicron.
Long COVID is the prolonged health problems caused by those who recover from COVID-19. More than half of everyone who contracts COVID-19 has some sort of longer health impact as a result, and some for many months afterward. UAB Hospital operates a clinic just to treat those with long COVID.
The omicron variant also isn’t treatable with the monoclonal antibody treatments current available to medical providers, Marrazzo said. There is a new monoclonal antibody treatment that researchers believe may be useful against omicron, she said, but it’s not readily available.
“We don’t have it. We can’t get it yet, and it’s not available in most places,” Marrazzo said.
What is clear is that omicron is spreading fast in the U.S. and COVID cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in Alabama. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday that omicron now makes up 73.2 percent of all COVID cases sequenced.
“And remember. We’ve only heard about this variant since Thanksgiving week,” Marrazzo said. “Even before Omicron spread we were seeing really bad pressure on hospitalizations and severe illness, particularly in the upper Midwest and New England.”
The number of Alabamians hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday increased by 16 percent from two weeks before. Alabama’s seven-day average of new daily cases reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health increased by 152 percent from 332 on Nov. 29, to 838 on Sunday.
Alabama’s seven-day average of percent positivity on Sunday was 7.4 percent after reaching a post-surge low of 4.3 percent on Nov. 19.
Marrazzo said with a virus spreading as quickly as the omicron variant, even if only a small proportion of those cases cause severe illness “especially in places that don’t have vaccination coverage, we are going to be faced with crushing demands on the healthcare system.”
“I sadly don’t think that we are going to escape this. There’s really no way, with about half of our population not being vaccinated. It’s really a very big concern for our healthcare system,” Marrazzo said.
Alabama has the third lowest percentage of residents fully vaccinated against COVID in the nation, and the second highest COVID death rate per capita in the U.S., according to the CDC.
For those wanting to gather with family for Christmas and into the new year Marrazzo suggested they get booster shots, if possible. Studies show that just being vaccinated isn’t as protective against omicron as is the protection provided by booster shots. People planning to visit family should also get tested prior to traveling, she said.