Virologist: Even if less severe than delta, omicron variant could stress health care system

Dec 15, 2021, 4:02 PM
Nurses plan patient care at the nurses station in the acute care COVID unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

While it’s still unclear how “severely ill” people can get from the omicron variant of COVID-19, it is known that the variant is spreading rapidly.

“That’s giving the virus more opportunities to mutate, and potentially would allow the emergence of other variants, which could be even worse,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show.

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Dr. Rasmussen has been joining KIRO Radio for months, since near the start of the COVID pandemic. She is a virologist and has a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Columbia University that she got in 2009. She did her postdoc at the University of Washington. Now, Rasmussen studies emerging viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, working at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

While omicron “might” cause less severe illness than the delta variant, Dr. Rasmussen says the stress on the hospital system will seem the same.

“Even if it is half as severe as delta, if it infects twice as many people, that could still lead to ultimately the same amount of stress being put on the health care system,” she said.

“We really do need to be very concerned about omicron, I think, not necessarily because it’s going to be so much worse than delta in terms of its severity, but because it could still have a pretty significant impact on our already weakened health care system,” she added.

Early studies show that COVID vaccines — along with a booster — can protect you from the omicron variant and other variants seen so far.

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As for the new COVID pill that has been shown in clinical trials to keep people from severe illness, it works by “basically [stopping] the virus from being able to replicate,” Rasmussen explained.

The benefits of the Pfizer pill are that you can take it orally, and that it can likely keep you from getting severe COVID that lands you in the hospital. But it’s only helpful if you take it early.

“The key here, with this drug, is that it has to be given to people early in their course of infection,” Rasmussen noted. “It has to be given within the first five days of developing symptoms, or it doesn’t do any good.”

“The severe disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection is actually the result of the infection causing your immune system and inflammatory responses to essentially go haywire,” she explained. “So if you get rid of the virus early enough, it’s not going to trigger your immune system and your inflammatory system to do that. If you let the infection go, then it will get to a point where really doing something about the infection itself isn’t going to help because that process has already started.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Virologist: Even if less severe than delta, omicron variant could stress health care system