The day after Christmas, when Omicron’s variant of COVID-19 cases exploded across the country, so did the phone calls at Dr. Greg Poland’s home.
Family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances suspected that they or anyone they knew had the virus. But they couldn’t find tests or get treatment because so many people were in the same boat. Legions of them called Poland, an infectious disease expert and physician at the Mayo Clinic, which is based in Rochester, Minnesota, and has a hospital in Jacksonville.
“My phone started exploding,” he said during a virtual session with reporters recently.
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Poland, which chairs Mayo’s vaccine research group, is one of many experts across the country raising the alarm about the need to vaccinate more people against COVID-19. About 62 percent of the US population is currently fully vaccinated. The rate in Florida is about 64 percent, Duval County about 58 percent.
Omicron, the fourth variant of COVID-19 in the United States, is highly contagious although usually less severe than previous versions of the virus. But it won’t be the last alternative to hit the country — unless the vast majority of people get a coronavirus vaccine and a booster, wearing masks and social distancing, the immunologist and vaccine specialist said 40 years ago.
He said, “The hair is almost standing up on my neck when I hear people say, ‘Omicron… it’s light. Well, that’s if I’ve been fully vaccinated and supported’.” “It might be if you weren’t. But odds are you’re playing Russian roulette. You might not be that lucky. I’ve seen it over and over again.”
He said there is no way around it. As long as there are a large number of people who are not immune and people are not wearing masks, this will continue in one form or another.
“At this point, all of your great-grandchildren will be immunized against the coronavirus, just as you were immunized against one of the types of influenza that first appeared in the 1918 influenza pandemic,” he said. “…we haven’t been able to stop immunizing against him since then.”
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The difference with this alternative, he said, is the relatively lower risk of hospitalization, although those numbers are also increasing. He also said that while Omicron is “much less dangerous” than the last alternative, Delta, there is still the potential for severe cases. It is more contagious than the previous one.
He said the vaccine, in addition to masking and social distancing, could reduce the spread of the disease.
“The virus continues to mutate because we continue to allow it to be highly transmissible and infect a lot of people,” Poland said. He said a variant of an omicron recently discovered in New York City was “transmissible as omicron and as virulent as delta.” “That would be a very bad actor.”
Most unvaccinated patients are hospitalized with the virus
Jacksonville-area hospitals are reporting a rapid increase in the numbers of patients being admitted with the coronavirus, especially since the holidays. As of last week, they combined had about 10 percent of beds open, according to Dr. Chiraj Patel, assistant chief medical officer at UF Health Jacksonville.
“Capacity is getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said Wednesday.
Open bed capacity could evaporate as soon as this week as the current increase is expected to peak, which could lead to staff and supplies shortages. Indeed, hospitals are already moving staff, such as “deploying” medical personnel from hospital medical practices to hospitals.
“They … are feeling nervous but still able to provide high-quality care,” Patel said. “We have workers who continue to come forward, despite the fact that we are overburdened. If the case rate continues to rise, I’m afraid access to care will be limited.”
Fortunately, the 2021-22 flu season, although worse than last year when a large segment of the population was staying indoors, has been relatively “poor”, he said.
But Patel and representatives from other hospitals in the area urged people to get the coronavirus and flu vaccines to help prevent serious illness. They also recommended upgrading from cloth masks to the N-95 or KN-95 versions and social distancing where possible.
He said “cloth masks will not protect you” from highly transmissible viruses because droplets can get through. “All it takes is a loud conversation or laughter…the drops can be suspended in the air for up to three hours.”
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Patel admitted that the public may be overwhelmed by the ever-evolving recommendations, particularly those from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC guidelines have changed as more scientific data has become available since the pandemic began in early 2020.
“It’s not because they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s because they’re learning more every day.”
The “multi-pronged strategy” developed to fight COVID-19 includes vaccines, testing, concealment and treatment, but vaccines are key, according to Dr. Mobin Rathore, chief of pediatric infectious and immunology at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and president of UF Health. Jacksonville Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology.
“It all starts with a vaccine,” he said this week on WJCT News 89.9’s First Coast Connect. “Those who are vaccinated are less likely to get serious infections…that’s the key.” “This is what will get us out of this quagmire.”
Because of the omicron rush, people across Jacksonville last week were scrambling to find tests, not vaccines, resulting in long lines at many testing sites. But Governor Ron DeSantis and Joseph Ladabo, Florida’s surgeon general, said they did not want anyone without symptoms to be tested for COVID-19 because of the crowded places.
They also urged people who have tested positive to seek treatment with monoclonal antibodies at state-sponsored sites.
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Meanwhile, most patients who were hospitalized during the current surge did not receive the vaccine.
For example, as of Friday, Baptist Health’s five Jacksonville-area hospitals had 141 patients with coronavirus, up from 66 on December 31. About 65 percent of them have not been vaccinated.
According to a Baptist statement, “In the current wave of COVID-19 cases, we are not only applying what we learned from previous increases but also examining new data to ensure we stay ahead of the curve.” “So far we’ve had fewer ICU admissions and lower demand for oxygen, so we feel confident we have the equipment and supplies needed to meet the increased capacity.”
Also Friday, Ascension St. Vincent’s reported that 87 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 at its three hospitals, compared to 38 the previous week. About 91 percent of them are unvaccinated.
“We cannot stress enough the importance of vaccination, including receiving booster doses as indicated. We believe that approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and that the benefits of vaccination outweigh any identified risks or side effects,” according to the Ascension statement.
The current increase is expected to peak soon
No one can predict with certainty what will happen next, Patel said, but his “best guess” is that COVID-19 is here to stay.
“Maybe not to that degree,” he said. “I think Omicron will peak rapidly in the next couple of weeks.”
Then the case numbers will decline, and a “quiet period” of several months will likely follow. Patel noted that COVID-19 has so far seen significant spikes in winter and summer spikes, so he wouldn’t be surprised if cases spike again this summer.
“Until we can come up with a way to stop the outbreak, we all have to make tough choices ‘to protect ourselves and each other,'” he said.
Do you have a COVID-19 story to tell? Contact Beth Reese Cravey at firstname.lastname@example.org or (904) 359-4109.
Covid-19 screening and vaccination
To search for testing sites across Florida, go to floridahealthcovid19.gov/testing-sites. The City of Jacksonville website also provides a list of testing sites at jaxready.com/SpecialPages/virus/COVID-19-Testing-Information. Availability subject to change.
To find vaccine locations, go to Vacines.gov or floridahealthcovid19.gov/vaccines/vaccine-locator.