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COVID: The Omicron variant ‘doubles down on the importance’ of booster shots, doctor says

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Dr. Megan Ranney, of Brown Emergency Medicine, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the severity of Omicron in the US and how Americans should get vaccinated.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JULIE HYMAN: The Omicron variant is, indeed, here in the US and it has been detected now. First reported case is out in California. This as the Biden administration makes some new announcements about testing requirements for inbound travelers and some other measures it is taking to address this new variant. Dr. Megan Ranney is with us now, ER physician and Associate Dean at Brown Emergency Medicine.

Dr. Ranney, thank you so much for being here. Given what we are hearing from-- and our Anjalee Khemlani is here as well, excuse me. Given what we are hearing from the Biden administration in terms of some of the steps that they are taking, what is your confidence level that we will be able to sort of get our arms around the variant? And how much good can those measures be when we still don't have a higher vaccination rate?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: So, these measures are important for controlling the spread of COVID in general. There are things that the public health and medical community has been recommending for months to reduce the chance of new COVID variants traveling from one area to another, through airplane trips.

However, let's be honest, Omicron is already here in the United States. And although these measures may slow the importation of Omicron and other variants, it is going to spread within our community. There is no doubt in my or others mind that over the coming days to weeks, we're going to be identifying dozens, if not more cases of Omicron already imported into the United States.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Ranney, Anjalee here. I know that you are one of the signatories on a push for the OSHA mandates to be put in place for vaccinations. And I know that the Biden administration has among the strategies that it has for the winter to make at-home testing free, but that requires pretty much your own initiative to sort put in that claim for the reimbursement. It seems like there's still not a lot of teeth in the administration's efforts and their strategies. What should they be doing at this point in time in order to ensure that we do, in fact, curb the transmission this winter?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: So, there are two big things. These vaccine mandates are essential to curbing transmission. We have seen in health care facilities across the country already that when vaccine mandates are put in place, people step up and get the vaccine. It provides a cover for those who've been avoiding it because of political beliefs and often provides an opportunity to assuage fears for those who just aren't fully sure yet whether or not to show up.

I hope that the blocks to the OSHA mandate are lifted because it is entirely within the federal government's purview and it's critically important to the health of our country. Regarding rapid tests, what I would love to see is for us to subsidize those tests that you can buy at a pharmacy or drugstore, take home, and do yourself. They are what many of us used during Thanksgiving to make sure that no one was infectious at a family gathering. They are essential for kids who are doing now tests to stay, kids who have been exposed to someone who has COVID but don't want to miss schools.

Requiring submission of receipts to insurance companies is going to be a major barrier to people using these rapid tests. And therefore, unfortunately, it's not going to have the effect on curbing transmission that we're all hoping for.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I also wonder about the news we just got from Vir and GSK about their antibody treatment holding up against Omicron. And we've seen some others not necessarily hold up. We also are waiting word from the vaccine companies about how their vaccines sent them. Where do you anticipate, based on just the initial news we've gotten out of South Africa and the hints we got out of Israel yesterday, where do you anticipate the vaccines will stand up in all this?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: So, I'm going to put a really big caveat on anything that I can say that a lot of it is speculation at this point. We have a few anecdotes, we have very small numbers of case numbers from South Africa. But all of the data to date points to the fact that the vaccines still protect against severe disease, hospitalization, and death for the majority of people with the Omicron variant.

The data to date also, however, points to the fact that Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, like Delta. And, therefore, is going to be, quite likely, more likely to cause mild breakthrough infections. It doubles down on the importance of getting a booster if you haven't already and you're more than six months out from that primary vaccine series.

The efficacy of those other treatments, really too early to say. We're all watching with bated breath. We're also, I should say, hoping for FDA approval of that new Pfizer pill. The Merck pill was approved earlier this week as an additional tool in our toolbox to help fight this new variant and Delta, which is already taking, unfortunately, the United States by storm.

JULIE HYMAN: Well, and on that last point, Dr. Ranney, what's striking to me is many people have returned to some semblance of pre-COVID life, right? Even if that pre-COVID life now involves things like masking and testing to get together with one's family. But a lot of places, maybe not even that, right? What is the contrast between that and what you are seeing on the ground in the ER at this point and how it compares to other points during the pandemic?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: So, I live in the state of Rhode Island, which has one of the highest adult vaccination rates in the country. Although we are certainly seeing increased cases across the state and increased hospitalizations, almost all of those hospitalizations are in unvaccinated individuals. This remains almost exclusively a disease of the unvaccinated, although those who are immunosuppressed or elderly are at slightly higher risk of a severe breakthrough infection, even if they have been vaccinated.

So what I would love to see folks do is, first of all, go out and get that primary vaccine series. That is your best protection against catching, transmitting, and getting really sick from COVID. Second, wear masks indoors if you are in a public space, especially if you're not sure that everyone has been vaccinated. And third, use those rapid tests to help assure that no one does have a breakthrough case, even if you're getting together with a group of unvaccinated-- or excuse me, of fully vaccinated individuals.

I don't think it's realistic for us to think about going back to March or April of 2020. No one wants to live in lockdown or isolation. That was the only measure we had available at the time. Now, we have great preventive tools that can allow us to go out and socialize and get back closer to normal life, to not be isolated at home, keep our kids in school. But it does require that commitment to vaccination, to testing if you're symptomatic, and to masking in public indoor places.

JULIE HYMAN: Dr. Ranney, thank you so much for your perspective. Really appreciate it. Dr. Megan Ranney is an ER physician and Associate Dean at Brown Emergency Medicine. Our Anjalee Khemlani as well who covers health care for us. Thanks to you both, appreciate it.

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