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Omicron is 'affecting our entire economy down here,' infectious disease physician in Alabama says

Dr. Ellen Eaton, Associate Professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Infectious Diseases, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the scope of the Omicron case surges, vaccinations leading to more mild symptoms, and how COVID-19 is stressing school systems, hospital workers, and front-line workers.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: And we want to bring into the stream Dr. Ellen Eaton, Associate Professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham division of infectious diseases. Good to have you back here. And when we take a look at where we stand with the latest, what do you make of some parts of the country declining infection rates, and yet hospitalizations appear to still be going up? What should we as the public take from that?

ELLEN EATON: Yeah. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we have some lessons with prior surges with the Alpha variant, for example, Delta variant. And what we've seen is that often our urban, coastal areas, like the Northeast, will see a surge sooner, densely populated areas. And then we'll start to see declining cases right as places like Alabama, the Midwest, may be surging.

And we're hopeful that these cases will come down across the US. But we can expect that for the next few weeks, we'll continue to see hospitalizations. We know that individuals who are acutely infected often end up in the hospital a week or so later-- so really too soon to say those hospitalizations are trending downward, although we're hopeful that as these cases get under control, our hospitals will start to clear out, we can start to resume normal hospital surgeries, procedures, and care for non-COVID related conditions.

EMILY MCCORMICK: Doctor Eaton, taking a look at the situation right now in Alabama, we've been hearing about a number of schools going virtual or extending their virtual learning beyond this past holiday weekend. I'm wondering, what are you seeing on that front right now in terms of community spread throughout schools? And is this a major source of the cases that you've been seeing in the state?

ELLEN EATON: Absolutely. This hits very close to home for me, no pun intended. I am working from home as an infectious diseases physician. I have done telemedicine phone calls today because I'm home with a sick child. Unfortunately, my school and many schools in my surrounding community have gone back to normal, essentially, with no masking, no vaccination encouragement, no vaccination sites for children, no ventilation, no distancing, no contact tracing, even, in my school's situation.

So as you can imagine, effective January 1, we have had a lot of Omicron spread very successfully throughout schools, affecting students and teachers. So yes, we're seeing entire classrooms home, schools having to go virtual. We're seeing teachers out-- teachers out not just because they're ill, but many teachers have children of their own, right?

They have daycare-age children, they have children in school, so when those schools are affected, we lose staff, we lose workers. We lose health care workers like myself. Clinics are having to close and go virtual with telehealth. And essentially, it's affecting our entire economy down here, from schools, to clinics, to frontline workers in the food and service industries. Everyone is short-staffed because, unfortunately, we just were not aggressive enough with our prevention measures.

ADAM SHAPIRO: We're short staffed now. Looking forward, I mean, Dr. Fauci has said it's still, quote, "an open question" whether this Omicron wave will spell the end of COVID having us all in this kind of almost two-year now chaotic way of living. After I'm going to say May, do we just get to a point where whatever variants are coming our way, we just have to do-- we can't go on like this. Or can we?

ELLEN EATON: Yeah, I think I am hopeful as well that those who remain uninfected who are now getting Omicron will develop enough immunity going forward that they can return to some semblance of normal. However, what I've seen personally-- I diagnosed a patient last week who had the Delta variant October 26. That individual was out of work for over two weeks, chose not to get vaccinated, thought he was immune, and here he is again three months later infected with a new variant.

So those types of lessons, those types of observations make me hesitate and pause to say that we will have durable immunity after an infection, after a breakthrough infection, or an infection without immunization going forward. I encourage people not to be alarmed. I think we can resume a lot of normal activities with vaccination and with masking.

What we're seeing with our breakthrough infections is that people have mild infections. So for example, my child has been in school. I have not kept him out of school. I vaccinated him. I sent him with a mask. He has had a somewhat normal 2022 until he got infected.

He has mild symptoms. He will go back to school in three days. He'll resume a normal semester, as best we hope. So I think things are much better now in the context of vaccines. And I should say as a health care worker myself, in 2020, I was worried that I would get a breakthrough infection-- excuse me, I would end up with an infection before the vaccine and end up severely ill myself.

But now as a health care worker who's fully vaccinated, boosted, if I do get coronavirus from my child, I know it'll be mild. The biggest burden will be on my health system where I'm no longer able to see patients for the next few days. But I am not worried that I will need a ventilator, I'm not worried that I'll need to be in the ER like I was prior to vaccination.

So I think the good news is we're in a much better position. Are we out of the woods yet? Not yet. And of course, as I always remind people, it is not too late to get your vaccine.

ADAM SHAPIRO: When we talk about health care workers like yourself, I hope there's a national push for a ticker tape parade here in New York City when and if we can declare this thing is over for all of you nationwide. Come to New York and let us cheer you on. Thank you so much, Dr. Ellen Eaton, Associate Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham division of infectious diseases.