Just when the Delta wave seemed to recede in October 2021, scientists in South Africa announced the emergence of a new, rapidly spreading variant of Covid-19. By the end of November 2021, the US was back on high alert as Omicron surged rapidly, raising questions about how it affects people who are vaccinated, unvaccinated or who have had a Covid infection.
Experts at an Ethnic Media Services Briefing agreed that focus should turn to harm reduction at this critical juncture in the pandemic, which means minimizing risk through masking and social distancing to protect our most vulnerable communities.
California State Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said that while health officials are seeing a peak in cases, they’re also seeing the highest level of virus transmission so far during the pandemic and that hospitals are at capacity. “Some of our hospitals are 20-25% over what we could call a baseline at our lowest points of COVID for total patients. And as you’ve been hearing, a lot of staffing shortages,” she said.
Californians have called the Statewide COVID-19 Hotline with concerns about how to safeguard against the variant and whether vaccines, boosters and antibodies can help fight it.
Dr. Pan addressed the most frequently asked questions that the hotline has received about keeping families and the community safe from the virus.
Can we teach our body to fight the Covid-19 virus?
When germs such as Covid-19 virus invade our bodies, they attack and multiply. This invasion or infection causes illness. The first time a person is infected by Covid-19, it can take several days or weeks for their body to make and use the germ-fighting tools needed to combat the infection.
After an infection, a person’s immune system – specifically its T-lymphocytes or “memory cells remember what it learned about how to protect the body against that disease. The body goes into action quickly if the body encounters the same virus again. When familiar antigens are detected, B-lymphocytes produce antibodies to attack them. Different types of vaccines work in different ways to offer protection. But with all types of vaccines, the body is left with a supply of “memory” T-lymphocytes as well as B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that virus in the future.
How effective are the vaccines against Omicron?
The California Department of Public Health now recommends taking the Moderna or Pfizer vaccinations over the Janssen (J&J). Getting a vaccine prevents infection or spreading the virus. Many people have experienced long covid, (post-covid symptoms) that last for weeks and sometimes months.
What if you are already infected? Is a vaccine necessary?
Both the Covid-19 vaccine and Covid-19 infection can help the body create antibodies which offer some immunity to later infections, though the potential strength of that immunity may be different. A single vaccine dose at least one month after an episode of Covid-19 infection will result in a significant boost in the levels of antibodies that protect from Covid.
It is possible to get re-infected. Covid-19 can cause severe medical complications, so the CDC recommends that people who have already had Covid-19 still get a vaccine, as it offers better protection than a Covid infection.
Are the Booster vaccines safe?
Booster vaccines went through the same rigorous data and trials as the original vaccines. Preliminary laboratory studies demonstrate that three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine (including the booster) neutralize the Omicron variant while two doses show significantly reduced neutralization titers. Boosters are now authorized for people 12 years of age and older.
Are the vaccinations safe for children?
According to Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D the vaccines are very safe and very effective for children. “Vaccinating younger children against COVID-19 will bring us closer to returning to a sense of normalcy.”
Many older Americans are vaccinated, so the virus is infecting the unvaccinated. California Department of Public Health reported a pandemic high of 90 pediatric admissions in one day on Jan. 4. Families are advised revisit early pandemic precautions – limiting get-togethers, avoiding unnecessary activities and protecting younger and vulnerable family members by masking, social distancing and getting vaccinated.
What are the side effects of vaccination? What’s the risk of myocarditis?
FDA scientists have said the benefits of getting vaccinated, such as preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, outweigh the risk of rare inflammatory heart conditions. Studies in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and JAMA Internal Medicine found that myocarditis following a Covid shot is rare and usually mild.
The CDC states that most patients with myocarditis or pericarditis responded well to medicine and rest. Neither do vaccinations have a negative impact on fertility,.
Mitigating the mental health impact on kids
Stress and social isolation caused by the pandemic have intensified the existing mental health crisis, particularly for children and youth of color, low-income communities, LGBTQ+ youth and other vulnerable populations.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has issued a public health advisory on the mental health challenges confronting youth. In California, the state Legislature has invested $4.4 billion in the 2021-22 state budget to establish a bold new initiative to transform the state’s children and youth behavioral health system.
Will we continue to see variants? Is a 4th dose imminent?
New Covid-19 variants will continue to emerge until the whole world is vaccinated against the virus, said experts. In the meantime, Dr. Pan suggests testing when symptoms appear, and using N-95; KN-95; KF-94 masks which filter 95% of the particles. If infected, isolate, and stay home, but and see a doctor in case of fever, chest pains, shortness of breath or fatigue.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org