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CDC Director Just Gave This Omicron Update

"It's much more transmissible than our prior variants," said Dr. Walensky.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

With coronavirus cases at higher levels worldwide than at any point in the pandemic, there is fear and confusion about how to stay safe. To help clarify who is most at risk, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky appeared last night on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Read on for five life-saving pieces of context—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Dr. Walensky Warned Omicron is Highly Transmissible

Waiter coughing into elbow while serving customers in a restaurant.

"What if just somebody who hadn't decided to get vaccinated" and gets Omicron, asked Colbert: What happens? "It's much more transmissible than our prior variants," said Dr. Walensky. "Two to three times. So and so really a transmissible variant. And so when we talk about severity, we about just the sheer volume and number of cases that we're, we've seen in other countries in South Africa and UK, and we have now started to see here in this country," it's going to result in a lot of cases. Why is it so transmissible? That's "likely related to how well and tightly it binds to our receptors. It's had numerous mutations on that binding protein and how well it can tightly to our receptors."

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Dr. Walensky Said Hospitals are Filling Up

Doctor examining female patient in critical health conditions using a stethoscope in the intensive care unit of a modern hospital during covid-19 pandemic

"Why does it seem to be a little bit less severe in any given individual?" she asked. "We're starting to see data from South Africa, from the UK who are a little bit ahead of us that their hospitalization rates did not rise as much that their death rates did not rise as much as they've seen in prior waves, that they haven't actually used as much oxygen, that their length of stay was a little bit shorter in the hospitals. So it does seem like what they're seeing in the hospitals is less severe in any given patient." Is that because South Africans are younger? And that it's summer there, asked Colbert. "Those are all things that we're taking into consideration, right? They have had less vaccination than we have. They haven't yet boosted. But in fact, they've had a lot of background immunity because they've had some pretty severe waves previously and many people who have been infected. So how well we can take the data from South Africa and be sure we can apply them here is a little bit unclear, but we're starting to see similar things here, huge amounts of cases as you've noted, and yet are hospitalizations while they're increased in hospitalization rates—not at the rate we had started to see with Alpha and Delta at this time."

She added: "We haven't seen a ton of massive increases in hospitalizations. We've seen some of that in the Midwest, but we haven't seen it to the extent that we would have."

She clarified: "There are places that are in hard times. There's no question, but there's also still a lot of Delta out there. We are currently in a hybrid situation and in fact hospitals are about two weeks behind what we generally see in cases. So we still may be seeing some of what's happened with Delta and that many of those cases in the hospital may still be Delta."

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CDC Director Does Not Recommend You Purposefully Get Omicron

Sick woman laying in bed under wool blanket holding thermometer and tissue. Ill girl caught cold flu. Pills and tablets on table.

Colbert asked, half-jokingly, if we should throw a chicken pox-like party to try to get Omicron, if it's a less severe form of COVID. "I do not recommend that approach, I definitely don't," said Dr. Walensky. "Here's what we know. We know that if you are vaccinated, you are 17 times less likely to be in the hospital than if you're unvaccinated. And if you're boosted and if you're vaccinated, you're 20 times less likely to die than if you're unvaccinated. Vaccinations work. We also think that prior infections prevent you some from getting disease with Omicron but it's probably the case that being previously infected with Delta, or even Alpha or wild type may not protect you as much against Omicron. We do think that Omicron might protect you more against Delta. And therefore that suggests that Omicron may protect you more against Omicron." Colbert noted there's a lot of iffy, conditional words in there. It's clear it's too early to know. Dr. Walensky said we may see the holiday spike in "a week or two."

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CDC Director Admitted There's Been a Shortage of Rapid Tests

Rapid Antigen Test kit with Negative result during swab COVID-19 testing.

Regarding tests—which is some areas are difficult to procure—"we recognize we have to do more. We recognize in areas, especially in areas of that are surging, it's really hard to find these antigen tests. There are PCR tests that are available and those, and we've been scaling up new federal PCR testing sites. We've authorized several new antigen tests. We're using these antigen tests" brewing used smartly "to keep our kids in school and higher education. And there was this confluence of events of Omicron hitting, and surges just at the holidays when people wanted more tests to gather." And there just weren't enough. She said she'd like the costs of rapid tests to be lower.

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How to Stay Safe Out There

African American man in antiviral mask gesturing thumb up during coronavirus vaccination, approving of covid-19 immunization

Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Alek Korab
Alek Korab is a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the ETNT Health channel on Eat This, Not That! Read more about Alek
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