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Doctors still see vaccines as best line of defense against COVID-19 variants

In the face of the new omicron variant, doctors say the Mid-South is more prepared now than ever before in the pandemic.
Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 9:18 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2021 at 7:32 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Doctors say their stance on the growing number of worldwide cases of the new COVID-19 variant, the Omicron strain, is a concern, not panic.

So far, no Omicron cases have been reported in the U.S.

The news of the growing number of Omicron variant cases, first identified by South African health officials, hit as millions of Americans were already traveling for Thanksgiving. Now that travelers are returning home, doctors say get vaccinated before the next holiday gathering.

“We have the best vaccines in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day,” President Joe Biden said in a public address Monday about the news of growing cases from the Omicron variant around the world.

The latest COVID-19 variant deemed a concern by the World Health Organization is the Omicron variant, which is expected to be even more contagious than the dominant Delta strain.

RELATED | COVID-19 Omicron variant activates US travel bans

Doctors in countries like South Africa and Botswana first identified the strain earlier this month, and since then, case numbers and hospitalizations have continued to go up there.

Now, world and U.S. health officials are working to learn more about it, like just how virulent and contagious it is, and how effective the current vaccines are against it.

“The good news is, in the past, we have never had a variant that has completely evaded vaccine protection,” said Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare infectious disease specialist, Dr. Shirin Mazumder. “So, vaccines will likely remain our best line of defense.”

Doctors expect the current vaccines to still help protect against serious illness and death as well.

Based on history, doctors do have concerns that Thanksgiving travel may have been a good time for the Omicron variant to spread. While no reports of the variant have emerged in the U.S., more countries are being added to the list of where the strain has been spotted, including Canada.

“Anytime we’ve had some kind of major holiday gathering, we’ve typically seen an increase in cases,” Mazumder said.

Following the holiday week, Tennessee reported more than 1,600 new cases of COVID 19 on Sunday, Mississippi 991, and Arkansas 334 cases.

Doctors say in the face of a new variant, we are more prepared.

“We have obviously the vaccine that’s available. We have medications available. Yes, we are concerned, but we don’t need to go into a panic mode at this time,” said Dr. Hiren Pokharna, an infectious disease specialist with Baptist Medical Group.

Those five and up are eligible for the vaccine right now. To find a vaccination location near you, click here.

Those 18 and older are also eligible for the booster shot if they got a full vaccine series at least six months ago.

Action News 5 reached out to the Shelby County Health Department (SCHD) to learn more about its plan to prevent any potential spread of the Omicron variant, but our request for an interview was denied Monday.

SCHD Director Dr. Michelle Taylor released this statement:

“Shelby County Health Department and the COVID-19 Joint Task Force are monitoring local COVID-19 testing samples for the Omicron variant. Several laboratories in Shelby County have the capability to perform DNA sequencing, and testing of samples began over the weekend shortly after the World Health Organization announcement naming the Omicron variant as a “variant of concern.”

While much is still to be learned about this new variant, SCHD recommends that everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 does so as soon as possible, which includes children age five and older who are now eligible for vaccination. SCHD also highly recommends wearing masks in public and/or crowded indoor settings where the vaccination status of others may not be known.

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