CDC Director Breaks Down Newest Omicron Variant, Extra Boosters, and Getting Back to Normal

Dr. Walensky talks with Katie

“We’re going to tiptoe toward normal,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky tells us.

Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s understandable that many of us are growing tired of constantly living in a public health crisis. But Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, believes we can’t let our guard down just yet.

Even though the Omicron wave is starting to slow down in some parts of the country, she emphasizes that hospitalizations are still high, and about 2,300 Americans are dying every day from the virus. “I certainly don’t like to see our death counts as high as they are,” Dr. Walensky said. “Those continue to be tragic, with every single family they touch.”

To help us make sense of what’s next, Katie asked Dr. Walensky about whether the newly identified “stealth” Omicron variant, when we can finally expect to get back to normal, whether we’ll need additional boosters, and much more.

Watch the full interview here:

And for the highlights of Katie’s call with Dr. Walensky, read on:

Katie Couric: How would you describe the current state of affairs, this far into the pandemic?

Dr. Rochelle Walensky: “I recognize everyone’s tired — I recognize everybody wants to be out of this. If we look at where we are today, cases are coming down from Omicron. They have been at record highs, but they’re coming down almost as swiftly as they went up.

Hospitalizations too are starting to come down. And then finally, our death rates are high — higher than we had seen in some other peaks, around 2,300 a day. So that is where we are right now.

Those death counts continue to be tragic, with every single family they touch. What I can say though is that over time, we’re mounting more and more immunity in the population, as we get more and more people vaccinated and boosted. And we also have a lot more tools than we used to. We have vaccines, a menu of therapeutics, and more testing options. And we’re working now to best utilize those tools in the context of what may lie ahead.”

What should we know about the new Omicron subvariant?

“It might be a little bit more transmissible, which may be the reason we’re seeing more and more of it in certain countries. Here in the United States, we’ve detected it. We’ve actually known about it here in the United States since mid-December. We haven’t yet seen it ratchet up in terms of seeing more and more of it. We have a handful of cases here and we’re continuing to follow it very carefully.”

We keep hearing that Omicron is milder compared to other strains, but then why are death counts so high?

“Milder does not mean mild, and I think mild can come in two different kinds of ways: For every single person that gets sick, if you were to get sick with Omicron compared to Delta, you might be less likely to end up in the hospital. However, if we have three or four times the number of cases, because of how transmissible Omicron is, we still end up with lots of people in the hospital and again, lots of deaths. So it’s this interplay between the absolute number of cases that you have, and that each case may be less lethal. But because we have so many more, we still have challenges both in our hospitals and with deaths.”

Amid breakthrough cases, does the vaccine still protect people from severe illness?

“When Omicron hit, many people who had been previously vaccinated with their primary series were having that protection start to wane. So people who are more than six months out of their primary series might have protection in the 50-55% range, in terms of severe disease. However, with that booster shot, we can bolster that protection from that 50-55% range all the way up to 80-90%, which is why right now we’re really encouraging people to get boosted.

The vast majority of people in the hospital continue to be people who are unvaccinated. We’re also seeing people in the hospital who might have been vaccinated, but either they were vaccinated and not boosted, or they might be less likely to have mounted a really good immune response to the vaccine. The latest data from the CDC on Friday demonstrated that you’re 68 times more likely to die from Omicron if you are unvaccinated, compared to if you’re boosted.”

Will there be a need to get additional boosters?

“Data is starting to emerge in terms of waning [effectiveness] from your booster dose. Certainly we’ve seen in some countries — Israel for the most part — that they’ve been boosting their older populations, their more vulnerable populations. We haven’t yet seen a lot of data on the waning protection from boosters in the context of Omicron, and that data is forthcoming. Right now, the CDC is not recommending yet another booster dose.”

When will children under 5 be able to get vaccinated?

“Companies are working toward a timeline for children under five. I can’t tell you exactly when that will be, with a date. I know parents are really anxious. I can tell you it won’t happen with me at the helm of the CDC unless all of that due diligence is done so that I would be comfortable vaccinating any child under the age of five.”

When can we realistically expect to get back to normal?

“Let me tell you what I think normal looks like: Our hospitals can manage patients coming in. We are in a place where we can start enjoying activities that we once knew and loved. I know everybody’s interested in taking off their masks, and what I would say is we should manage the expectation that on any given date. we’ll be back to normal. Because I think we’re going to tiptoe towards normal.”

Will we ever really know how Covid-19 originated?

“We may not be able to get to the bottom of that question… It would be helpful, historically and scientifically, to know. I think we should do everything we can scientifically to understand it. I also know that historically coronaviruses — whether they be SARS or MERS — have come from an animal zoonotic source. So we have history that suggests they have the capacity to jump, but that’s not definitive for this virus.”

What do we know about the Omicron sub variant, BA.2, and how concerned should we be?

“BA.2 is a sister of BA.1, the most prominent Omicron variant. So most of what we have here in the United States – over 99.5% of Omicron – is Omicron and the vast majority of that is the BA.1 sub lineage. We have seen this BA.2 sub lineage in some areas in Denmark and in the U.K.

We’re starting to learn more. It does look like our current vaccines will work about as well as they did against Omicron itself. It might be a little bit more transmissible, which may be the reason we’re seeing more and more of it in certain countries. We’ve actually known about it here in the United States since mid-December, but we haven’t yet seen it ratchet up in terms of seeing more and more of it. We have a handful of cases here and we’re continuing to follow it very carefully.”

How can we better prepare for the next pandemic?

“We’re now 80,000 people in deficit in our public health workforce. Not only do we need more sheer volume in the number of people, but we need to scale up our workforce, up-skill our workforce, so that we have, in any given community, [enough] health workers and epidemiologists.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.