Experts urge patience, avoiding large gatherings to curb omicron ‘blizzard’

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Dr. Michael Osterholm

Earlier this week, the CDC issued a change in policy that was met with some skepticism and criticism.  In a release, the agency wrote, “Given what we currently know about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is shortening the recommended time for isolation for the public.

“People with COVID-19 should isolate for five days and if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours), follow that by five days of wearing a mask when around others to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter.

“The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the one to two days prior to the onset of symptoms and the two to three days after.”

“It seems we are prioritizing getting people back to work. It’s concerning,” said Dr. Rachel Hardeman, founding director of the Center for Anti-racism Research for Health Equity and professor of Health and Racial Equity at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. ”If we had policies for people to take paid leave and to take care of their families and pay their bills, we likely wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota told the MSR the policy makes sense to him.

“It’s an imperfect solution to an imperfect problem. It’s an imperfect solution but I give the CDC credit for taking it on and the criticism,” said Osterholm. “All over the country, there have been critical shortages of essential services. Three subway lines were shut down in New York City because of a lack of workers.”

He added, “If we lose 20% of health care workers due to illness, this by itself will create a real crisis. Critical infrastructure has to continue, the roads have to be plowed, sanitation services have to continue, the electricity and basic needs have to continue to be taken care of if people are well enough to work,” he said.

“Ideally we would like to have more time. It’s not perfect and will not be perfect. Think of it like a Minneapolis blizzard. This is a viral blizzard and like our blizzards, it will not last. We are in a situation where we need to get through the next six to eight weeks,” said Osterholm.

He continued, “In a few more months, we will have a few more drugs that will limit the impact of the virus and along with vaccinations, that will help us get through this. I have confidence in what has been produced so far. Just think what’s going to happen if you have drugs that make the virus less severe,” said the professor.

Osterholm was referring to the new pills developed by Merck and Pfizer promising new drug treatment that could be given as a pill in the days after COVID-19 symptoms arise to prevent severe disease infection.

“It certainly has the potential to be a really important advance,” said Albert Shaw, MD, Ph.D., a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist. “Other COVID-19 treatments, such as remdesivir or monoclonal antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-19, are given intravenously. This is a pill your physician could write a prescription for, that you could pick up in a drugstore.”

Pfizer’s pill is designed to block the activity of a key enzyme that is needed for the coronavirus to multiply.

Merck has developed a pill called molnupiravir, which performed so well in a clinical trial this year that the trial was halted early so the FDA could make the treatment available quickly. An early report showed the drug cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 50% for patients who had a mild-to-moderate disease. But a final analysis of the trial reported in November reduced that benefit to 30%.

Osterholm was confident that we will get to the other side of this crisis. “Back in 1980, HIV was a death sentence, today it’s a chronic disease.”

But in the meantime, the doctor urged people to avoid big parties. “If you go to bars there is a good chance you will get infected,” he warned.