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Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen urges COVID vigilance over holidays

Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen
Albany County
via YouTube
Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen

The next few days could prove to be a key period in the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Public health officials are closely tracking the COVID-19 omicron variant, which has arrived in the U.S. at a time when cases are spiking and hospital capacity is being pushed to the limit. But Americans are eager to gather for the holidays after nearly two years of restrictions during a pandemic that has killed more than 800,000.

Whalen spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

We are certainly seeing an uptick in cases. This has occurred specifically since the Thanksgiving holidays. But it's also in keeping with what we know to be the viral respiratory season. So we do experience upticks of all respiratory illnesses at this time of year characteristically. But this is a particular concern, especially given the fact that we are now faced with looking at the omicron variant, which we're waiting for a lot more data on. But anecdotal reports seem to indicate that this is more transmissible and that in areas in Europe, where this has peaked, it has spread very rapidly and peaked very quickly. So this is certainly a time of caution, and a time for us to be very mindful that we continue the mitigation strategies that we have discussed, and that people know the incredible importance of the protection that vaccines can provide to them.

Is it your understanding from early returns on data that while this variant does seem to spread more rapidly than Delta, perhaps, cases so far for people who are vaccinated have not been as acute as we've seen in past spikes?

That's correct. So I think, you know, what we're looking at with the Delta variant, and the data on that is pretty robust at this stage, is that people that are vaccinated have a significant protection against severe illness, hospitalization, ICU, hospitalization and death. So this is where we really need to focus public attention and ensure that people are protecting themselves to the best of their possible abilities.

I know that has been the effort that's been going on now for most of a year. Is there something different that can be done to reach that last bit of population that hasn't gotten the vaccine yet?

I think our efforts around public education continue. We are trying to, you know, look at demographic information from the data from the New York State Department of Health and determine, are there specific geographic areas that we need to get back into with our public health educators. People are, unfortunately, getting misinformation from the wrong sources. And we need to make sure that people can get their information from a trusted source. Whether that is a community member of a health care provider, or the Department of Health, getting the right information to make that decision for your family is critical.

And how important is a booster to the latest state of play with omicron? Because a lot of people have gotten the first shot or maybe they've gotten both shots, but they have not yet gotten a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna.

Right. So we know that data does demonstrate that there is waning efficacy of the vaccine so it is important to get a booster. If you have received Pfizer or Moderna, you should get a booster after your second dose six months after your second dose is completed. And if you received the J and J, you should get it two months after your after your first dose. An individual will be best protected if they have received the full series and the booster if that is within the timeframe. You know, certainly one vaccine can offer some protection, but not the amount of protection that that it has been studied, as a two dose vaccine series for the mRNA vaccines. And the numbers look good against prevention for serious illness, and hospitalization in depth. So we really encourage people who have received one dose to come back and get a second dose, and those that have received the whole series to check the dates and come back and get boostered.

Another public health measure that we haven't talked about yet this time is masking. And currently, New York State has a vaccine or mask mandate in place for public indoor spaces. I take it you're in support of the governor's move to do that.

I'm absolutely in support of the governor's move to do that. And, you know, I know that our county executive had discussed the importance of this throughout the entire pandemic. We know that mask use decreases the transmission of droplet and other respiratory infections. Llast year when everyone was either staying at home or wearing masks is that we had significantly less flu as well as COVID. What we need to protect against this year is anything that will increase hospital surge capacity. So wearing masks protects individuals not only from COVID, but also from other respiratory viruses that are spread very commonly at this time of year. So It does enable us to have that hospital capacity that people need if they are acutely ill.

What is your advice for people listening to this who don't know what the right thing to do over the holidays is?

Right. So, you know, I do think that there's a lot of concerns specifically with the omicron variant. And there are a lot of unknowns with that, I have to be honest. We are, you know, only about two weeks since the first case was isolated. So we haven't got a lot of data on that. And, you know, I would encourage people to be very cautious. You know, our prior guidance is, if you are in a situation where everyone is fully vaccinated, you should have a level of comfort with those family gatherings. But I would advise against large gatherings beyond a smaller group of individuals. We've just seen too much transmission, that people come together to celebrate, they want this to be joyous occasions. And we don't want people to have to feel the regret afterwards, if they're, you know, hosting such events that do cause transmission of the virus.

As you look out a couple of weeks after the holidays, we've got Christmas and New Year's coming up, how concerned are you about what January holds right now?

Well, at this point, I'm very concerned. I mean, if you looked at that trajectory of cases, we did peak last year, in January and February, and I'm really going to be very, you know, interested to see what happens with Omicron. And we have seen in other countries where this is spread, that the spread occurs exponentially very quickly. So where we saw the Delta kind of increase over a period of months, the Omicron variant, where it is spread in other parts of the world has peaked within weeks. So this can cause a really steep, quick uptick in cases. And that is where we are worried about, you know, hospitalization, surge capacity.

What's your message to people who are now at the end of their rope and are experiencing a COVID fatigue? You know, it's almost two years of various measures, masking, vaccinations, are you worried that people are just starting to tune out?

Absolutely, absolutely. And I think, you know, COVID, fatigue is very real. And, you know, we see it in our department, I am, I feel it myself, to be completely honest. And, you know, I think any public health professional that tells you that they are not feeling it as well is not correctly representing the situation that we're facing in health departments, and that health care workers are facing. You know, I understand, I completely understand, but we have to be aware, this is a worldwide pandemic, we have seen such significant numbers, in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, we're not finished yet.

With this new variant emerging, we have to pay careful attention. And it is just not time yet, for people to relax their concern or mitigation efforts, we want to be able to move forward and hopefully move past this. The best strategy to do that is to be vaccinated. Vaccination prevents not only hospitalizations, severe illness and death. But if we have enough people vaccinated, it will prevent additional variants from emerging. And this is where we really have to be focused on from a population perspective, people tend to look at this and say, well, it's my health I can, I can do what I want. If I want to put myself at risk, I'm going to do that that is the wrong idea. Because it is not just your own health that you are putting at risk, but the health of others and your loved ones in particular. So I really encourage people to continue to do what they can do to toe the line. And, you know, hopefully the spring will bring better news. That's all we can continue to do is hope that the strategies that we are implementing, and that if we all work together on this, we can get past it.

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