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Omicron Q&A: Omaha doctors stress vaccines are best tool to fight variants

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 12:50 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - CHI Health hosted a live Q&A about the COVID-19 Omicron variant on Monday afternoon.

CHI officials say they’ve received a handful of requests for a doctor to answer questions since the new Omicron variant emerged in South Africa. So Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan and Dr. David Quimby, infectious disease experts with CHI Health-Creighton University, were on hand to share more information via Zoom on Monday afternoon.

COVID-19 variants happen when the virus mutates through infection.

“When the virus passes from one person to another and they get to replicate, they get smart. They get smarter and smarter because nothing is stopping them from getting smart. But if you have vaccine around everybody in your circle, for example, and everybody is protected, then the virus can’t get a hold and mutate,” Dr. Vivekanandan said.

This is particularly happening in places that don’t have adequate access to the vaccine, she said.

Dr. Quimby likened it to a lottery: the more cases there are in a population, the more chances you have to create a mutation.

Both doctors stressed that while masking and vaccinations might not be perfect, they are key to fighting COVID-19.

“It might not be 90%, it might be 88% — that’s OK, Dr. Vivekanandan said. “Vaccines still protect us, and that’s a big tool that we have. So vaccines and masking are going to be key.”

Dr. Quimby agreed, noting that vaccinations are nothing new.

“It is routine for people to get flu vaccines every year and that is nowhere near, even 70% efficacy very many years — so just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful.”

If you haven’t been vaccinated, think about what is stopping you, Dr. Quimby said. Seek out good information from medical professionals — don’t let something you “heard” stop you from being protected, he said.

“Go for some actual data out there,” Dr. Quimby said, noting the most common reasons he hears regarding vaccination hesitancy are that people think they’re in a low-risk group — which he notes is not a “no-risk” group — or that they’re waiting for more information about the vaccines.

“I’m not sure what the endpoint is there — we have a few billion doses given,” Dr. Quimby said.

The doctors said the Nebraska Public Health Lab and labs at UNMC and Creighton-CHI Health are working with the state to look for variants from positive tests confirmed here.

“So we have a really good system in place where we are keeping track of these variants. I think we were one of the leaders of the leading states to do this,” Dr. Vivekanandan said. “So I think we are in a good place to keep an eye on the different types of variants in our community, and I’m sure we are looking for the Omicron variant as well.”

She said she works on the COVID-19 floor, seeing many patients, many of them unvaccinated.

“The common theme is that patients with really severe disease who are critically ill, on a ventilator, on several machines, who have really, really bad lung disease are all patients who didn’t have their vaccines. So it doesn’t matter the variant — vaccines play a huge role in making sure you don’t get severe disease or die from COVID-19,” she said.

Dr. Quimby noted that we are not protected by geography.

“Prior to this, delta was in the southern Asian, Southern Asia-Indian subcontinent area, so we are not in a bubble,” he said. “Vaccines are important honestly worldwide; there is not much you and I can do about that. But the more people there are with viruses replicating in them, the more chances you have to have mutations to lead to new variants.”

Watch Monday’s full Q&A session

Digital producer Justin Kies contributed to this report.

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