Officials seek to reassure public over omicron fears

Administration health officials are trying to soothe the public’s fears over the omicron variant of the coronavirus, balancing the need to keep Americans informed with the reality that there’s little definitive information available yet about the new strain.

As more cases are detected around the country, officials like White House chief medical adviser Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci: Too soon to say if omicron is final wave of pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement Public health expert: Biden administration needs to have agencies on the 'same page' about COVID MORE and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyWalensky says she will improve CDC messaging amid criticism Public health expert: Biden administration needs to have agencies on the 'same page' about COVID Child hospitalizations reach record high amid omicron surge: WSJ MORE are facing frequent questions about the new variant during media appearances.

The initial picture emerging is that omicron causes less severe cases of COVID-19, though it may be much more transmissible than other variants.

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Experts and public health officials are trying to highlight that key information as they learn it, while also cautioning against reading too much into the early reports without additional data.

“Though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it, thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. He added, however, that “we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to delta.”

South Africa was the first country to alert the world to the existence of the omicron variant at the end of November, and the CDC designated it a “variant of concern” just a few days later. It’s been identified across the globe and in at least 17 U.S. states, though that number is expected to rise quickly as the virus has likely been spreading undetected.

Glen Nowak, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health & Risk Communication and former head of media relations at CDC, said one of the problems right now is that the public is clamoring for answers that scientists just don’t have.

“I think the challenge is that there’s so much uncertainty at the beginning, when you discover, whether it’s a new virus or a new variant of the [coronavirus], people want answers instantly,” Nowak said.

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Scientists know the variant contains numerous mutations, which is a cause for concern, though they don’t know the full implications. Experts are racing to find out more information, and are urging the public to be patient. 

“There’s this pressure on public health officials and government officials to instantaneously give an assessment,” Nowak said. “It can be dangerous, because if that turns out not to be true, you’re going to lose some trust and credibility. And you’re always going to be mindful that people look at what you’re saying, and they’re assessing whether it’s true or untrue.”

During an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Walensky said the CDC is still gathering information, including about how the new variant responds to vaccines.

“We know it has many mutations, more mutations than prior variants,” Walensky said. “Many of those mutations have been associated with more transmissible variants, with evasion of some of our therapeutics and potentially evasion of some of our immunity, and that’s what we’re watching really carefully.”

Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said health officials have been good about managing expectations and telling people that it may take at least two weeks before more information is known. There will likely be answers, but finding them will take time, he said.

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“On balance, I’d say there are more unknowns than knowns about the variant and how it will play out in the coming weeks and months. But what we do know is troubling enough to start to raise awareness about the potential for what this area holds for us,” Michaud said.

While initially reported cases have been mild, cases have only been spotted in the past couple weeks and there is a lag between reported infections and hospitalizations or deaths. South Africa also has a much younger demographic than Western Europe and the United States, so many of the infections have also been reported in younger people.

“I’m not discounting the possibility that it is, in the end, a milder virus than delta or some of the other variants. It’s just that that’s a very tricky question to answer, and we need some more time and information to really get to the bottom of that,” Michaud said. 

Officials are also stressing that the delta variant, which accounts for 99 percent of all current infections in the U.S., is still the biggest threat. Cases are surging again across much of the U.S., and the unvaccinated are once again filling intensive care units and bringing health systems to the brink.

They are continuing to stress that the best thing Americans can do is to get vaccinated if they haven’t yet, and then to get a booster shot if they have been vaccinated.

“I know that the news is focused on omicron. But we should remember that 99.9 percent of cases in the country right now are from the delta variant. Delta continues to drive cases across the country, especially in those who are unvaccinated,” Walensky told reporters on Friday

“Our recommendations for protecting against COVID remain the same regardless of the variant. ... This includes getting vaccinated if you have not already and getting a booster dose if you are eligible, along with wearing a mask in public indoor areas, frequently washing your hands, improving ventilation, physical distancing and increased testing to slow transmission of the virus,” Walensky said.