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A familiar response to COVID-19 omicron variant: vaccinations, boosters, masks

With the COVID-19 omicron variant yet to be detected in Connecticut, Hartford HealthCare officials expressed confidence Monday that existing vaccines, boosters and safety protocols will be sufficiently effective in controlling the new strain when and if it arrives.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the state ticked upward.

“We should not panic,” Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare’s chief epidemiologist and system director for infectious diseases, said of the omicron variant, which was first detected last week in South Africa and in recent days in Israel, Hong Kong and several European countries.

“It’s definitely a variant of concern, something we are certainly watching,” Wu said during a virtual news briefing. “But we have to remember there is a variant out there right now that is really doing a number on us and that is delta. And so we should be worried about that variant because that is the one that is present.”

Connecticut’s COVID-19 numbers Monday underscored the point. Gov. Ned Lamont’s office reported that since Friday, 2,312 new coronavirus cases had been detected among 44,045 new tests, which translates to a one-day positivity rate of 5.25% — the highest it's been in nearly a year.

Hospitalizations in the state had increased by 54 to 354.

During the Hartford HealthCare briefing, Dr. Ajay Kumar, the system’s chief clinical officer, said Hartford HealthCare’s seven hospitals were treating 137 COVID-19 patients as of Monday, up from 78 on Nov. 19, just 10 days earlier. Twenty-four of the patients were at Backus Hospital in Norwich.

Systemwide, 21 of those hospitalized were being treated in intensive care units, with 16 requiring ventilation, Kumar said.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and Westerly Hospital, Yale New Haven Health affiliates, reported Monday they had 13 and nine COVID-19 patients, respectively.

Kumar said the increase in the number of cases was anticipated, given cooler weather that limits outdoor activity. What hasn’t changed, he said, is that about three-quarters of those requiring hospitalization have not been vaccinated. Those requiring hospitalization who have been vaccinated include asymptomatic patients who came to the hospital because of falls and fractures, for example, and were found to have the disease.

The best way to ward off the omicron variant is for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated and for those eligible for booster shots to get them, according to the experts.

Kumar said Hartford HealthCare’s physicians are better prepared than ever to handle any increase in cases and have more tools to treat the disease.

“We feel comfortable and confident to manage whatever is to come,” he said.

Wu said it appears the omicron variant is more transmissible than previous COVID-19 strains but that the symptoms it causes seem to be relatively mild. He said it could be one to two weeks before much is known about existing vaccines’ effectiveness in treating it.

But even if vaccines and boosters aren’t 100% effective against the variant, they will be partially protective, he said.

“The only pathway out of this pandemic still remains vaccination as well as masking and to a certain extent social distancing,” Wu said. 

Acknowledging that health care workers and “the entire society” are feeling fatigue over the pandemic, Kumar said he hopes that having to deal with another COVID-19 variant “makes us more resilient.” Wu even suggested the "silver lining" in the omicron-variant threat is that it might "reinvigorate" the response to the pandemic.

Keith Grant, Hartford HealthCare’s senior system director for infection prevention, commented on whether people should resume wearing masks indoors if the omicron variant arrives in Connnecticut.

“I do believe if you’re in a situation that there’s any risk, you should be wearing a mask,” he said. “It shouldn’t be based on omicron but on prevalence (of COVID-19).”

Added Wu: “If you’re indoors around people whose (vaccination) status you don’t know, wear a mask.”


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