Omicron less severe, local health experts remain concerned

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) – Preliminary findings of new studies out of the United Kingdom and South Africa report a 66 to 80-percent less likely chance of being hospitalized from an omicron infection than of a delta infection.

This as the FDA authorizes a second oral, at-home antiviral pill to fight COVID-19 infections in high risk adults, the Merck pill.

However, local health experts across the east are not satisfied with the preliminary findings and warn the public that the threat of COVID is still present, especially entering the holiday season.

“Even though it’s not as likely to cause a severe illness, there’s still people who are still at a high-risk of getting severe illness from any COVID,” said Genelle Butz, CarolinaEast Pharmacy Director.

Earlier this week, an unvaccinated man in his 50s in the Houston, Texas area became the first report of an omicron-related death in the United States.

Less than one month after its first reported case, omicron has been detected in all 50 states.

Now, sick patients have the option of two antiviral pills. One is produced by Pfizer with close to 90-percent efficacy in preventing hospitalization and death in high-risk patients. The second, authorized on Thursday, is produced by Merck and has a 30-percent efficacy in preventing hospitalization and death.

I think this drug looks very good, but I think some people see that as an alternative to the vaccine and that is absolutely not the case,” said Dr. Paul Cook with the Brody School of Medicine.

This leaves Dr. Arin Piramzadian of StarMed Healthcare asking, “Why would you not get vaccinated, actually have up to 70, 80 percent protection, versus get sick, have possible long term side effects, and take a [Merck] treatment that can only protect you up to 30 percent.”

Ahead of the Christmas holiday, 58-percent of eligible North Carolinians are fully vaccinated.

Even though omicron may not be as deadly as other illnesses, the county has experienced similarly serious public health threats before.

“Chicken pox can be deadly, but for most people it’s absolutely not deadly,” said Dr. Cook. “I think we should think of omicron in that way. This probably won’t kill people but missing work is going to be a big deal.”

Dr. Butz says the highly transmissible variant will lead to more cases and, “more health care workers getting sick, more grocery store workers, postal, everybody, getting sick, and if you don’t have people able to work and support society, that will make everything a lot harder.”

All three doctors are unanimous in their professional recommendation that the best protection against COVID-19 is vaccination.

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