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Omicron is particularly dangerous for the unvaccinated, doctor says

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Dr. Suzanne Judd, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health Epidemiologist, joins Yahoo Finance Live to examine concerns of future COVID-19 variants, Omicron's effects on both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, the CDC's latest isolation guidelines, Dr. Fauci's most recent comments on the pandemic, and the current variant's mutations.

Video Transcript

- Let's bring in Suzanne Judd, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health Epidemiologist. Great to talk to you today. You know, ahead of the Christmas and New Year holiday we heard so many warnings, especially from the White House saying that January is going to be the worst, as it relates to this latest surge coming from the Omicron's variant. What are you seeing on the ground there? Is this still really all about the unvaccinated?

DR. SUZANNE JUDD: Actually Omicron seems to have breakthrough infections in people that have had previous COVID infections and been vaccinated. So it's definitely worse in terms of going to the hospital. If you haven't been vaccinated, Omicron will put you at a significantly higher risk of going to the hospital or having a severe COVID infection. But right now with Omicron, really everyone's at risk of getting a mild infection. So it's-- it's tricky this time, because Omicron is behaving so differently.

- Yeah, it's tricky and it's also kind of I guess, you know, the second chapter. We saw this with Delta first in terms of the variant that really got identified and labeled, and now we've got to worry about what could potentially come. And you just heard the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki there talking about boosters and what it means for the world, as we try and prepare for this. I mean, if you're watching this play out as an expert, how worried are you still that there could be a second variant or third-- I should say now at this point-- that could be problematic?

DR. SUZANNE JUDD: Very worried. With an emerging infectious disease like COVID-19, that's one of the big things that epidemiologists and virologists track, because these viruses can mutate and change. They can mutate into animals, and when they get into various species, they can change again and go back to humans, so there-- there are a lot of things that epidemiologists watch with a virus like this that we just don't have a strong track record of. Historically, what we're seeing with COVID-19 right now where the virus mutates and becomes a little bit more mild, that's usually a sign that the virus is mutating to the point that it's going to stabilize, but there's no guarantee with this one because we just don't know.

- We've seen the CDC get a lot of pushback on the recent changes that's made to recommendations for those who have tested positive for COVID-19. They changed the date to five days of isolation, now we're hearing Dr. Anthony Fauci saying that potentially a negative test will be necessary to get out of that isolation period. You know, how-- how important do you think that test is, and more importantly, are there enough tests out there to be able to put these recommendations in place?

DR. SUZANNE JUDD: That's what concerns me more than whether or not a negative test is important. There just aren't enough of these test kits, and they're expensive. So you're going to wind up with a health equity challenge with these test kits now if you have to get a test kit to test out. So I don't see that as a long term solution in January and February. Maybe in March or April, we'll have enough kits that everyone can test and maybe they'll be free, but at the moment, that doesn't seem like a solution.

- Let me ask a follow-up to my question too, just in terms of the trade-offs of boosters. And more pointed and specific example, because you had Israel approving a fourth dose for people over 60 and medical staff. I mean, I guess you do start to get into an area where there is a trade-off of offering any protection to anyone around the world, and maybe going too far with just some countries. I mean, when you look at that, is that maybe going too far the fourth dose?

DR. SUZANNE JUDD: We don't have data on the fourth dose yet. We do know that immunity wanes, so certainly we realize that there's-- there's a need for a fourth dose at some point in time. But the big public health question you just talked about is again, a health equity question. Wealthier nations have access to the vaccine and other nations just simply don't.

And as long as there are nations that don't have access to the vaccine, you're going to see the situation where COVID can continue to spread quite rapidly through humans and we'll see these-- these surges that continue to happen. So we need to get vaccine supply up so that we can vaccinate the whole world, rather than focus on boosters and countries that can afford it.

- You get the sense that with this variance, this is kind of the first time where increasingly, businesses are learning to kind of live with it. So in other words, sure, there are concerns about employees testing positive, but there's also so many companies-- businesses that are struggling to-- to fill their staffing, and saying, look, if you can test negative after five days, even if you're-- you know, even if you've had COVID, we don't necessarily need to put aside that 10-day period. I-- I wonder if you think this is kind of the beginning of sort of just learning to live with the virus.

DR. SUZANNE JUDD: I do.

- A shift in attitude, if you will.

DR. SUZANNE JUDD: Yeah, I definitely think we're seeing a shift in attitude, where we're thinking Omicron is mild, based on what we saw in South Africa, what New York City is experiencing, what Washington DC is experiencing. So this is, I think, an attempt for the public health community to try to figure out how do we live with something that is going to be around for a while, and right now it's going to get a lot of people sick.

That's going to be challenging just by the nature of people being sick. Parents are going to have to take care of their sick children, employees are going to be sick. Regardless of the fact that it's COVID-19, they're not going to feel well enough to go to work. So the CDC is having to make some changes to say, OK, since it's not quite as severe as it was previously, can we try to get folks back to work sooner?

- And you made a good point there in terms of it being stabilizing-- is the term you used-- and I'd be curious to know if that's kind of I guess, you know, at the beginning of all this that's what people were talking about. As this would eventually morph because the virus wants to stay alive, mutate, replicate, doesn't necessarily want to kill hosts, it's not a good idea to do. So their hope was that it would evolve to a less serious form of the virus. And so I mean, I guess from here, is that where you'd expect things to go?

That's what we would expect. If it behaves like other viruses, the COVID-19, now again, any coronavirus could mutate again and we could have a different COVID, but this COVID-19, yeah, we do expect it to-- to mutate into a more-- a version of the virus that's beneficial really to the virus that doesn't kill the host. So yeah, that's what we would expect, and it's a good sign that Omicron seems to be doing that.

- And let's hope that those conditions continue to remain mild. Suzanne Judd, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health Epidemiologist, always good to have you on the show.