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Public Health update: Looking back at another pandemic year, the new omicron variant, and staying safe this holiday season


The holiday season is upon us and with it, word that the new omicron variant might be more transmissible. KSUT’s Sarah Flower talked to Liane Jollon with San Juan Basin Public Health about omicron and staying safe this holiday season. It’s their final COVID-19 update of 2021.

Interview Transcript:

Liane Jollon
It really is amazing that we have been doing this once a week for yet another year of this pandemic and still have so many new things to talk about, and so many changes. A year ago, this time, we were just starting to have access to vaccine, it was only available to our frontline health care workers. And we were starting to make plans to get individuals who live in long term care facilities in the queue. And that is all we were able to do with the limited vaccine that we had. But we had such tremendous hope that this vaccine was going to really put this pandemic behind us. And what we've learned over the last year is that this global pandemic, as well as human behavior continues to be unpredictable, has really kept us in a position where a year later, we're still responding to a crisis that can fill up our hospitals. Can render people unable to access care, because there's too many people sick at the same time. And really change the course of what we're planning to do with our lives. So this has been a really interesting learning experience.

Sarah Flower 
And this is all coming at a time right now where it feels like we blinked over the weekend, and this new variant is really coming on and proving to what other nations have seen across the world, in that this new omicron variant is in fact much more contagious, and many more people are becoming ill, vaccinated and boosted. Liane, what do we know today to keep ourselves safe in an upcoming holiday season as well?

Well, the first thing that we do know is that the vaccines are offering good protection, particularly if you're boosted. So the omicron variant has shown up in 43 of 50 states. It's probably in all 50, just not detected. And in the states that are seeing the initial growth, they're seeing what epidemiologists call the doubling rate of the cases be in a really, really short amount of time, the omicron takes over much more quickly than we can control. Right now, over 90% of cases in the U.S. are still delta, that could change by the end of this calendar year where the dominant strain becomes omicron. What they're finding is the omicron is very transmissible, and has what epidemiologists call an attack rate that's higher than what we've seen in the delta, or the alpha or the original strains, meaning that it will jump from person to person in a household or in a workplace, at just a quicker rate. And we're seeing that this is happening with people who are vaccinated or boosted. But what we know that the vaccines and the boosters do is they still keep you from getting a severe infection, one that requires hospitalization, and one where you may be facing death due to this. So what's going to happen as the omacron spreads, if the models are accurate, is that it will spread really, really quickly. And there will be a tremendous amount of unvaccinated people seeking care in hospitals at the same time, even if the omicron is more mild than previous variants, because it's just so infectious.

For people that are considering gathering this week and have been taking this seriously and are boosted and are doing all the things, is it safe to gather and what other measures could people do so that they can have a holiday.

Follow public health precautions, the same precautions that we've been recommending for the last almost two years. So it's important to first of all, be vaccinated. It's important to have your booster. It's important to get tested. Now, I do have to warn people that with this pressure on the system in Colorado and the pressure nationwide, test results are not turning around as quickly as they were even, two weeks ago. We do want people to take advantage of testing. And then when people do get together, the ways to do it safely are to avoid crowded public indoor spaces. Get together in small groups with other individuals who are also vaccinated who have had the opportunity to test before traveling or before the holiday.

Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health wrapping up another year of COVID-19 updates. Anything else you'd like to add today?

It's been a really tremendous year for local public health, to kind of demonstrate what the value of the critical work that we're always doing in the background, that until something like this happens, is really invisible to the general public. Public Health works hard in the background, to always be improving community health, and also addressing health equity, the healthier we are going into something like a global pandemic, the better we come out on the other side. So for us the challenge in 2022, with the unknowns of this variant, and potentially other variants on the horizon, are how do we continue that steady state work, which really raises the opportunities of families of young moms of young children, and get everybody headed in the right direction, so that they're more resilient for whatever comes their way.

The Tuesday COVID update takes a break next week and returns January 4.

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