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Wellness Wednesday

What does the Omicron variant mean for holiday happenings?

'it's really important that we continue to practice layered mitigation,' says Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Department of Health.
'it's really important that we continue to practice layered mitigation,' says Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Department of Health.Peter Thoeny / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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by Jill Riley

December 08, 2021

With the Omicron variant having officially arrived in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health’s Kris Ehresmann joined Jill Riley to talk about what the latest twist in the Covid-19 pandemic means with holiday gatherings ahead.

Jill Riley: To kick it off here, how are vaccine numbers and Covid cases going in Minnesota?

Kris Ehresmann: Our Covid case numbers continue to come in at very high levels. We’re seeing thousands of new cases reported every day, and so that is certainly concerning. When it comes to our vaccination coverage, we have, in general, good overall coverage if you look at the whole state as a whole - but we have many areas of the state where coverage is really low, so that's problematic. Even though we've achieved some of our vaccination goals, our coverage isn't sufficient. I mean, we're clearly seeing a lot of transmission with Delta, up until this point, and now we've got Omicron joining the fray.

So I would say that we're pleased that people are getting boosters. We think that's really important, because we know that there is waning immunity. So we're seeing consistent numbers of people seeking out boosters, but our new vaccine numbers have really slowed down, with the exception of our five-to-11-year-old population. So if we really [want to] make a difference in Covid transmission, we really need to see a larger proportion of the population fully vaccinated and boosted.

At the end of last week, we got the news that the Omicron variant is in the U.S.; in fact, the first case was in Minnesota. Omicron is top of mind this week; can you talk specifically about that variant and if there's any evidence that that's driving case numbers?

Omicron was first identified by scientists in South Africa. However, the identification doesn't mean that it was the first time that the variant was circulating, but just that they were the first to identify the genome. What we know about Omicron is that it has a number of mutations across the SARS-CoV-2 genome; some of them are familiar and some of them are not. “Familiar” means that they're mutations that we've seen with some of the other variants - and so based on that, we can say, well, with this particular mutation, it resulted in, for instance, increased transmissibility or a greater ability to evade an individual's immunity, that type of thing. But there are a number of other mutations that are not as well known, and so it's difficult to kind of to predict what impact they will have.

We really need to see more data about real-world circumstances with this variant - but we do know that it's very likely that it is going to be very transmissible. In fact, there's already some predictions that it's three times as infectious as Delta was. There's also some concern that it it may be able to evade some of our immunity. So one of the things that we're very much going to be looking at is the impact that it has on vaccine effectiveness. There are a lot of things that that we don't know, that we'll be watching for, but there are some general predictions that we can make based on some things that scientists know about mutations they've seen with other variants [regarding] the question of whether or not the peak that we're seeing is due to Omicron.

We feel very confident that it is not. Our public health laboratory sequences, in collaboration with partners, about 20% of specimens. So no, we have not seen Omicron more than the case that we reported in the state. So this large number of cases that we have been seeing has been due to Delta. We will be continuing to watch going forward, obviously, to see that the impact that Omicron has but, but know that the prior peaks have been Delta-driven peaks.

When there's a lot of media coverage of a new variant, I think it can make people very nervous - and in no way shape or form do I want to make anyone panic, but I think it's good to get the information out to people. What are the things that we can continue to do to stay safe? I mean, yes, of course, vaccination is there. But you know, when it comes to social distancing and masking…I'm guessing that the health department would say, yes, definitely, especially with the holiday season.

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that we've really tried to emphasize this fall - and I don't know if sometimes it gets lost in translation - you know, when vaccines first came on the scene, I think all of us, and I include myself in that, we were just all so ready to be done with everything. So I think there's been this sense that, “Man, I'm vaccinated, I shouldn't have to do anything more.”

In reality, we know that it's really important that we continue to practice layered mitigation in particular, because of what the Delta variant brought to the landscape. And so we've really tried to remind people that even though you're fully vaccinated, you know, it's really important that you continue to mask when you're in indoor public places, that you do socially distance, that you avoid large crowds, that you're using good hand washing, making sure if you can to improve ventilation in the areas that you are…all of those things continue to be really important.

So I think that's really a message that we need to continue going forward is we've got vaccination as sort of the core base layer, and then we're adding these additional mitigation layers on top to add to our protection. When I got my Covid booster last week and I posted about it, I said I was grateful, but not invincible. I think that perhaps the attitude that we need to take with vaccination is, you know, we're grateful we've taken action, but we're not invincible. And layers of mitigation [are] going to help us be as protected as possible.

Kris, I will say I got quite the the dose of reality. I was fully vaccinated, and I had a breakthrough case of Covid this fall. I got my booster just last week, but I was thinking, “Okay, I got a breakthrough case. But how much more sick could I have been had I not been vaccinated?” I kept telling myself that as as I was going through the symptoms.

Oh, absolutely. And I think you make a very good point: the ideal would be a vaccination could ensure that every case was prevented, that would be fabulous, but we know that's not going to be the case. What vaccination really does is helps us prevent very severe cases that require hospitalization, or that can lead to death. That's really the goal. I mean, I realize that in an ideal world, we'd all like to avoid every illness, but I'm sure that even with the illness that you experienced, you're grateful that you didn't have to go into the hospital. You weren't on a ventilator. And you're still here to talk about it.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Peter Thoeny (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.