After huge spikes in infections and hospitalizations, there are signs that the omicron strain of COVID-19 is starting to recede, at least in some parts of the country.
The highly transmissible strain moved fast and caused a high number of breakthrough cases that infected people who were otherwise vaccinated and often boosted.
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Long term, those breakthrough infections could be a good thing for many in society, according to a professor of microbiology and immunology.
“We’ve been looking at … people who have been vaccinated and then get an omicron infection,” said Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“It really seems like if you get infected after getting vaccinated, your immune response is not only high, but it’s also what we call broad. Meaning, it starts to recognize all the previous variants that have been circulating almost as well as it recognizes your vaccine strain.”
Pekosz made those comments on this week’s “Is It Normal?” podcast on WTOP.
“We do think that infection on top of vaccination is probably the safest way to get this really strong immunity,” Pekosz said. “The infection is now working with the vaccination to give you an even better outcome than the infection alone or vaccination alone.”
Keep in mind, as highly transmissible as the omicron strain is, there’s also a belief that the number of breakthrough cases being recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is probably much lower than the actual number of cases out there. In Pekosz’s opinion, probably substantially so.
“We’re seeing even more cases than we think we are out there,” he said. “What that means is we’re getting more and more of that really strong immunity … and more people are having that strong immunity so that speaks to something I call population immunity.”
“Population immunity is what we see with influenza a lot,” he said. “It’s the fact that people have some immune responses that dampen severe disease and therefor the disease never seems as severe as it used to be because everybody’s got some level of immunity.”
Some exceptions to the rule probably exist: the elderly and those with other underlying medical conditions, for example, may not see the same high level of response. It also doesn’t mean the country will ever achieve herd immunity, which just wipes the virus out because it can’t spread. But it could create enough “population immunity.”
“That limits the spread a little bit but more importantly limits the disease severity,” Pekosz said, who otherwise believes the virus is probably here to stay, spreading like other colds and flus.
“This surge in omicron is just showing us that yes, this virus is now here to stay. This virus has evolved to now infect and spread between people incredibly efficiently and when you’ve got a virus that spreads that efficiently there’s no way you can really eliminate it from the population.”
But the buildup of population immunity, he believes, will allow public health professionals to start thinking more about long term handling of the virus going forward, to include imagining how we’ll live and resume life again.
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