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Amid Arrival of New COVID Variant, UMD Expert Directs Attention to What Works

While Little Is Known About Omicron, Public Health Researcher Says Masking, Vaccines, Boosters Curtail Hospitalizations, Deaths

By Chris Carroll

Empty airport

A man walks through a deserted airport terminal in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday after the United States and other nations imposed travel bans on the country, where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first detected.

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

First detected less than a week ago and now reported in at least 19 nations worldwide, the new omicron variant of COVID-19 is prompting a flurry of global travel restrictions and sending scientists scrambling to understand its risks—and leaving the public largely flummoxed.

In a White House press conference yesterday, President Biden—who closed the U.S. to visitors from eight African nations—called the new variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” while urging Americans to get COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots.

Though it will likely be unclear for several weeks how effective vaccines are against the new variant, messaging should continue to bolster “what we know,” said Sandra Quinn, professor and chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Family Science: Vaccines have been remarkably safe and effective against every variant so far.

Quinn, who studies vaccine acceptance and the influence of various forms of messaging, spoke yesterday to Maryland Today about vexing roadblocks to full vaccination, and what worries her most about the omicron variant.

Does this new variant raise any unique public health challenges compared to earlier ones?
There’s little that we know about this variant, which was also true in the winter early last year when the original form of the virus was spreading, and when other variants like delta arose. The unique challenge at this moment is the level of fatigue and resistance in place against ways of mitigating the risks, like wearing a mask or being vaccinated.

What’s the state of vaccine resistance and hesitance now?
Things continue to evolve. Some early hesitancy, particularly in Black and brown communities, has declined somewhat and vaccine acceptance increased. If you look at Kaiser Family Foundation data, you see continued strong resistance among some whites who are more rural and conservative. Unfortunately, it is breaking along partisan lines. Vaccine mandates have helped, and while obviously there is resistance, we’ve also heard from people who’ve said mandates gave them cover to do what otherwise wouldn’t have been acceptable in their social group, just to keep their job.

Could fear and uncertainty about omicron motivate people to get the vaccine or wear masks who previously refused?
We did see an uptick in vaccination in various places as the delta variant took hold this year and began to undermine the sense that we had that we’re getting better and we don’t need to keep taking precautions. This variant could contribute to some increases in vaccination. But there are some unanswered questions that will affect how this plays out: How transmissible is the new variant? What will we learn about disease severity? The third question is whether this variant has the ability to circumvent either natural or vaccine immunity. That’s a really worrisome one.

Could the uncertainty about vaccine efficacy actually bolster an antivaccine stance?
People who are still unvaccinated at this point are quite often stuck in their resistance, so I don’t know if these questions will set us back at this point. If we do start to see an indication this variant is more transmissible or creates more severe disease, it could motivate people to move off the fence, or even off what one of the community health workers working with people in barbershops called the “hell, no” wall.

For public health advocates, what are the key messages now?
First, it is going to take a little time to understand this variant, so try to be patient. I saw a CNN reporter ask (virus expert) Dr. Peter Hotez in an interview why it’s taking so long to understand the new variant. That’s a pretty shocking question, considering we’ve only known about it for a few days.

We need to emphasize what we do know now: that these vaccines have an incredible safety record and are highly effective against severe disease, hospitalization and death. None of that has changed.

And a crucial message is about the vulnerability of our health care systems should we find this variant is more transmissible, or in the worst case, creates more severe disease.

What’s the greatest risk in that case?
Our health care systems can’t keep doing this. We are at risk of the systems and the people within them burning out. We risk losing people we can’t easily replace—a physician, ICU nurse, a respiratory therapist. You can’t replace them overnight.

So the message is that the precautions are not only for our individual safety, but to protect our health systems and health care workers, and ultimately their ability to care for us all

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