No Need to panic over rising omicron cases: Dr. Ashish Jha

Booster shots, rapid tests, avoiding risky things can keep people safe, says Indian American public health expert

Amid rapidly rising cases of the omicron variant of Covid 19, Dr. Ashish Jha, Indian American dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, says there is no need to panic.

“This is not March 2020 all over again,” he told NPR comparing this season with March 2020, when the pandemic began. The big difference between then and now “is we have all sorts of tools to keep people safe to get on with our lives.’

“And it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over,” Jha said. “We have some challenges ahead, but we know how to manage them and we can do it.”

Asked how bad could omicron get, he said, “If we aren’t careful and if we aren’t thoughtful about our approach, then we can get into a lot of trouble.”

“But remember, the main issue is in the past, infections always preceded hospitalizations, which preceded deaths, and that has been a pattern we’ve seen over and over again. We finally can break that cycle,” Jha said.

Read: Everything you need to know about Covid-19 Delta variant (August 10, 2021)

“I don’t think we have the ability to completely suppress infections unless we go into a massive lockdown, which we’re not going to do,” he said. “But we have the ability to prevent those infections from turning into hospitalizations and deaths.”

“And that’s what we should be focused on. We have an ability to prevent those infections from disrupting our lives, shutting our schools. That’s what we should be focused on,” Jha added.

Dr. Jha feared “a very large wave of infections probably by the end of December with January seeing “maybe more infections than we’ve seen in any month throughout the whole pandemic.”

Some of it will happen in unvaccinated people, he said. “But a lot of it will also happen in people who are partially vaccinated. People who have gotten two shots.”

“Those people largely should do OK. Most of them will not end up getting particularly sick,” Jha said suggesting getting boosters into into everybody particularly high-risk individuals.

“That will make an enormous difference in keeping people from what will feel like a really bad cold to turning into something more dangerous.”

“The challenges of the next six weeks are real and they are going to be difficult,” Jha said but noted tools like rapid tests are becoming more available and getting a little bit cheaper.

“I think we can use these tests, get people boostered, avoid some really risky things like large indoor gatherings where people are eating and drinking and not that stuff,” he said.

“If we can avoid some of those, we can have a pretty good holiday season and we can get through January and February without too much disruption to our lives,” Jha said.

However, he advised against going to large holiday parties. But flying domestically should be relatively safe as long as precautions are taken.

Asked about parents who have kids too young to be vaccinated. Jha said kids’ risk of being infected is really driven by the adults around them.

“So if you’re in a community that’s highly vaccinated or certainly for the rest of the family is vaccinated, I think it’s pretty reasonable,” he said suggesting rapid tests for children as an extra layer of protection.

Read: Ignorant to think Covid in India is getting under control (June 5, 2021)

Testing schoolchildren on a regular basis can be preferable to instituting quarantines, he said describing CDC’s “test to stay” policy for schools as a good one.

“We have kids across America at home waiting out a 14-day quarantine. Totally unnecessary,” Jha said “If those kids are getting tested on a regular basis, they can come back to school safely. It does not cause big outbreaks or big spread.”

The rise in case numbers is not something to panic over, Jha said, “because I really do think we’re going to break this link between cases and hospitalizations and deaths.

Read: India’s first two Omicron cases in Karnataka, govt says no need to panic (December 3, 2021)

“Look, I’m plenty worried,” Jha said. “I’m worried about the fact that there’s still so much misinformation out there that some people are going to take no precautions at all.

“I’m not saying we can just ignore the pandemic,” he said noting “we’re in a different place than where we were two years ago” and suggesting use of available tools to get through the next couple of months.

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