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How will Omicron shape 2022? We asked a local infectious disease expert.

Graph showing the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents through Jan. 3. Recent data may be adjusted and corrected.
Jerimiah Oetting
Graph showing the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents through Jan. 3. Recent data may be adjusted and corrected.

Cases of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant are surging around the world, including in the Monterey Bay region. Though the disease caused by the new variant appears to be more mild in many vaccinated patients, its infectiousness threatens to overload hospitals, where healthcare workers are already facing burnout and their own outbreaks of COVID-19.

KAZU’s Jerimiah Oetting spoke with Marm Kilpatrick, who studies infectious diseases at UC Santa Cruz, about the new variant, and the outlook of another year of the pandemic. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jerimiah Oetting (JO): Is 2022 going to be another year dominated by COVID-19?

Marm Kilpatrick (MK): That's a tough question. So we're getting just crazy numbers of cases. I think anyone just needs to look at any of the graphs that are out there to see the numbers of cases that are happening and just be kind of shocked. So I think that it's quite clear that Omicron will infect a very substantial fraction of our population, including those of us that have been vaccinated or even boosted. But thankfully, our protection against severe disease is still quite high if we've been vaccinated.

So I think that in 2022, like we've seen in much of 2021, those people that are vaccinated will see a really greatly reduced chance of death from getting infected with this virus. And that's, I think, extremely positive.

Unfortunately, what I don't think I can make any predictions about is whether there might be a new variant that arises that will basically be able to infect us even if we've been vaccinated or boosted and infected with the Omicron variant. And then the big question, of course, that will arise will be: will that variant also cause severe disease in people that might put us back in the hospital?

JO: You mentioned that the omicron variant seems to cause less severe outcomes, at least for vaccinated people. But it’s also more infectious. What does that mean for our hospital capacity?

MK: The number of cases and just infections that we're going to see is so high, that even if the chance of hospitalization is greatly reduced by both vaccination and previous infection, the number of hospitalizations is going to get quite large, quite fast. And so the strain on the health care system will be substantial from Omicron in many places, and I'd be shocked if that doesn't also happen locally.

Marm Kilpatrick studies infectious diseases at UC Santa Cruz.
Maya Peterson
Marm Kilpatrick studies infectious diseases at UC Santa Cruz.

And just to be super clear, the data that does suggest that Omicron might be a little bit less severe than Delta — it's not that much less severe so it's actually probably still substantially more severe than the original version of the virus that we detected in 2019. So, unvaccinated people that have not been previously infected really, really, really should get vaccinated as soon as they possibly can, because their chance of getting infected with Omicron is very high and their chance of severe disease with Omicron is actually still much higher than it was then it would have been last year.

JO: School is starting up again after the holiday break. What risk does Omicron pose to children?

MK:  Omicron can definitely infect children. There's some evidence of higher cases in children than we've seen in some of the past epidemics, and people have wondered if that's because Omicron is especially good at infecting children, or more severe in children. And the evidence that I've seen doesn't actually support either of those two possibilities, thankfully. But what it does support quite strongly is that children are less vaccinated than adults are. And so basically Omicron is infecting a more naive population that's giving rise to more cases than we would have seen in the past.

However, it is definitely very infectious and more infectious than any of the previous variants. And so therefore, I would not at all be surprised to see more transmission in schools than we've seen in the past with the same measures in place.

JO: I hear a lot of frustration, you know, everybody's getting a bit worn out, burned out. There seems to be a new variant around the corner all the time, and some people have thrown up their hands and just said, "Everybody's going to get it, maybe I'll be less cautious." What do you say to that mindset?

MK: If everyone just said, "Oh, let's have one big party and everyone get infected today," then we’d have this really crazy number of people who need hospital care a week from now or 10 days from now, and the hospitals simply couldn't care for those people. Our health system is not designed to have the entire population get infected in, say, a two-week period.

We need to flatten the curve at least a little bit just to avoid hospitals being really, really greatly strained.

The one last thing I will say is that there's actually also now really good evidence that if you've been previously infected and you get exposed to Omicron, it doesn't provide that much protection. But if you've been previously infected and you get vaccinated, you actually have great protection against Omicron. So there really is no reason not to get vaccinated in the sense that it really provides great protection and the best we can do at this point.

Jerimiah Oetting is KAZU’s news director. Prior to his career in public media, he was a field biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.