Former WH adviser: ‘stealth omicron’ may not lead to increased hospitalizations in US

WTOP's Dimitri Sotis asks Andy Slavitt, former senior adviser on the Biden White House COVID-19 response team, how worried we should be about another surge

A more transmissible strain of the coronavirus’ omicron variant has been growing in Europe. While in the past what is happening on the continent has been a barometer for how things might unfold, an expert explains why BA.2 might not lead to increased hospitalizations in the U.S.

BA.2 has been described as “stealth omicron” because “it lacks a genetic quirk of the original omicron that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from delta using a certain PCR test,” The Associated Press reported. What could actually be a BA.2 infection looks like a delta infection.

Experts say that the severity of BA.2 differs depending on the vaccination rate of the country.

“Europeans have done a better job vaccinating and boosting their population, so that will mean that’ll protect them more,” said Andy Slavitt, who was the senior pandemic adviser to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 pandemic response team. However, Europe has also had fewer cases, which leaves the population a little more exposed, he said.

Every country is going to experience things a little bit differently based on the “layered immunity,” which includes exposure, boosters and vaccination, Slavitt said.

Even if there is an increase in the next couple of weeks or months of BA.2 cases, “we have a large amount of people who are infected already with omicron, and the number of people who have been boosted and vaccinated means that we may not see increases in hospitalizations,” Slavitt said.

That doesn’t mean that people might not get symptoms or get sick, but if you want to reduce those odds, Slavitt said getting a booster, wearing a mask when indoors and around others if there are a lot of cases are two things you can do.

He said Congress needs to act, particularly in getting the fourth shot of vaccine.

“Right now countries around the world are buying doses so they can get people their fourth shot. The U.S. is not doing that because it has not had Congress approve additional funding that needs to happen,” Slavitt said, adding that if the U.S. does not put in its order, then “there will not be enough doses for four doses here in the U.S.”

‘Even if it feels over for you, it’s not over for everybody’

COVID-19 has been one of the leading cause of deaths in the U.S. in the past couple of years, according to the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, which provides information on the health system’s performance.

Slavitt told WTOP’s Dimitri Sotis that he agrees people have been too accepting of the number of people dying from COVID-19.

“This is now the third-largest killer in the United States, and we act like it’s over,” he said. “Even it feels over for you, it’s not over for everybody.”

There are people still at risk, including those who are unvaccinated and older people with other sicknesses.

“I don’t think we should stop caring about people just because they’ve decided not to get vaccinated, or just because they’re sick. We have to have it in our hearts to understand that even if we feel safe, others are not so lucky. And when we forget that, we lose a lot. We don’t just lose more lives, we just lose a piece of ourselves,” Slavitt said.

He advises taking stock of the environment around you and deciding what your risk tolerance is.

“Right now, because cases are low (in California where he lives), I’m dining indoors, I’m eating, I’m going without a mask indoors. And I’m not really that worried. Now, is it possible that I can get COVID? Yes. Is it reasonably highly likely? Probably not at this point,” Slavitt said.

But back in January and February, when cases were higher, Slavitt said he was more concerned and was wearing a mask everywhere indoors.

“When cases are higher again, we need to pay attention to that and respect it,” reiterating that just because things might be safe for you, they may not be so for everybody.

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Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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