Doctor explains what we know about the Omicron variant's spread

Dr. Tom Tsai, Senior Fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute; Assistant Professor in Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the latest with COVID-19 and the spread of the Omicron variant.

Video transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Let's talk about things we can do to protect ourselves and what's coming down the pike for the country with Dr. Tom Tsai. He's been on the program with us before. He's senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute. It's good to have you back.

And let me just start off with the negative stuff. What is worrying you most, because you hear about, almost-- I think if you added all up 25, 30 cases in the United States, almost-- you got to believe that that's just the tip of the iceberg?

TOM TSAI: My biggest worry, Adam, is we're losing steam, and the pandemic fatigue is going to continue to grow. It's yet another wave-- and with this new variant and a lot of concern. There's still data that are emerging and will be emerging in the next days to weeks on, truly, how much more transmissible it may be and what level of immune escape it may have in terms of being able to infect individual with prior exposure or, more importantly, folks who have already been vaccinated.

But my biggest worry is that-- for individuals to not forget the tools that have worked over the last year and a half. Our toolbox remains the same. We also have more effective tools in that toolbox. And for individuals who are not vaccinated, the vaccination still remains incredibly important. For folks, who are vaccinated getting the booster shots is incredibly important. Only 22% of vaccinated individuals have had boosters so far. And really, sticking to the principles that we know have worked in the past.

But with winter coming on, I think there's-- my worry is, you know, that-- for folks to not give up hope. We know what works and that has kept people safe, and we got to just double down on the interventions that we know can protect people from omicron, delta or any of the potential other variants of COVID-19.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Some of those obvious things that we know about wearing masks, but not any particular kind of mask. I mean, there's always the debate between-- you see a lot of the blue surgical masks versus the KN95s, I think they are. Which, at this point, should we be using? Should we always go with the-- it's either the N95 or the KN95, the ones that come from China, or can we stick with that blue surgical?

TOM TSAI: I think err on the side of caution. There's clear data that the N95 and the variants that come from that, in terms of the Chinese masks or the Korean versions-- they can be more effective in the level of protection. So better quality masks is still an important piece of the puzzle.

But wearing a mask is better than no mask. Interacting in outdoor spaces-- more difficult in the winter but, in places where indoor ventilation is adequate, is still really important. So again, it's not about either/or. It's about still going back to that layering on, you know, the interventions that we know that work, but still built on the bedrock of ensuring that we continue to increase the rates of vaccinations and boosters in our country.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How quickly will we know about what you referred to in your first response to us, about the ability of vaccines to at least prevent severe outcome if you should become a breakthrough case?

TOM TSAI: Vaccines are very effective for the most prevalent variant in the US. I think with the new [INAUDIBLE] that's been dominating the news. In the US, it's still important remember that the Delta variant is still the most prevalent variant in the country. And the vaccines are incredibly effective for that.

Breakthrough cases are exceedingly rare. Only about 1% of individuals have had breakthrough cases. If you're vaccinated, the rate of hospitalization gets reduced to 1 in 1,000. And the risk of death is even much lower than that, less than one in 10,000 among vaccinated individuals overall. So vaccines have been effective and remain effective for the most prevalent number of COVID cases in the US.

ADAM SHAPIRO: But now that we have the omicron cases being identified, how long will it take for doctors worldwide or here in the States to determine whether the vaccines have a level of efficacy-- not about infection, about severe outcome?

TOM TSAI: That, I think, may take a little bit longer. Some preliminary data on a population-level is emerging from South Africa already, that's been announced. There's been preprint research papers coming out of South Africa. So I think, over the course of the next several weeks, we'll have more clarity. Then WHO has that timeline in place as well. So I think it's also important to not jump to conclusions too quickly either. But I think the important thing is to stay tuned. There will be a lot more clinical information, epidemiology information coming in over the next days to weeks.

ADAM SHAPIRO: And a bit of advice. A lot of us are going to be traveling in the next couple of weeks. Let's assume that the people you're visiting are all vaccinated and have booster shots, that the people traveling are all vaccinated and boostered. Would the obvious precautions of you making sure that people are vaccinated, even maybe doing an over the counter test-- can you still take these trips or should we delay them?

TOM TSAI: You know, you've hit the nail on the head. And I think one thing that we've talked a lot about in the past, and I think the need for has re-emerged-- is the need for testing. The testing can tell you the information of whether you not have COVID.

So I think it can still be safe to travel with the adequate precautions of not just masking when you're traveling and being vaccinated to begin with, but testing has an incredible role. And I know over the course of the pandemic, we've talked about PCR tests and the role for antigen tests. And really, this is the moment where the need for the antigen test becomes incredibly paramount. That way, we can take the uncertainty out of the equation, of whether somebody may have a breakthrough infection, whether omicron or otherwise, and react to data and change our behavior to data to break the future chains of transmission.

So at-home tests are incredibly important now. The White House planned to increase the access to at-home tests and encourage them to be free and covered by insurance. While imperfect as a as a process, I think signals really importantly that the role that testing has for individuals, whether they're traveling for the holidays or not-- to test frequently with the antigen test because it will tell you if you are infected and in an infectious stage of having COVID-19.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. Tom Tsai, senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute. Always good to have you here. And thank you. Wishing you all the best.

I also want to point out that Dr. Tsai is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health.

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