With the Omicron variant showing up in more states, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN Friday that her agency is working hard to understand exactly what kind of threat this new variant poses. But she points out that the Delta variant in wide circulation now is still a concern.
Walensky spoke with CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about it on Friday afternoon. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: It’s been over a week now since the world learned about this new variant. What do we know now that we didn’t know then?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: These data are really starting to emerge. We’ve seen a rise in cases in South Africa and southern Africa. We will learn a lot about this variant from them.
We have scaled up our genomic sequencing here and have been prepared for this because of all we’ve all of the work that we’ve done so far.
We have so many more tools now to address variants than we did a year ago, but I do want to highlight what was said at the top which is we now have about 86,000 cases of Covid right now in the United States being diagnosed daily, and 99.9% of them, the vast majority of them, continue to be Delta. And we know what we need to do against Delta and that is get vaccinated. Get boosted if you’re eligible. And continue all of those prevention measures including masking, and those are very likely to work against Omicron as well.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Are you worried that Omicron will become a dominant strain here? Do we have evidence of that or what’s your level of concern?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: You know, it might and we don’t yet know. What we do know is that early data, and even mutation data, are telling us that this may well be a more transmissible variant than Delta. This is going to take some time to sort out. We are prepared, though. We are doing genomic sequencing in all of these states, but it may very well be that we start to see more Omicron than we have Delta. And we will be following that very carefully.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: As you mentioned, we’re doing a lot more sequencing, certainly then a year ago, or even several months ago, but it strikes me, Dr. Walensky, we’re still only doing just over a million tests a day. Period. There was talk at one point of doing 20 million, 30 million tests a day. If we’re not doing enough tests, even if we’re sequencing more, doesn’t that put us behind in terms of actually being able to have real vision on what’s happening here?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: So I think you’re referring to the PCR tests. We’re doing about one and a half million PCR tests per week. But I think what we really need to comment on is we’re doing a lot more rapid testing and even with the President’s actions yesterday, we’re scaling up rapid testing in our international airports as we speak, in LAX and San Francisco, Atlanta, Newark, JFK to make sure that we have rapid tests and PCR tests available for international travelers so that they can come in and do tests, you know, three to five days, even if they don’t have symptoms after they arrive.
We’re doing a lot of testing in our K-12 communities, in our higher ed communities. And we’re scaling up our rapid tests that are going to be available in lower income settings, and in more vulnerable communities so that those rapid tests will be free. We have rapid tests that are now going to be available that can be refunded from your insurance company. So we’re doing a lot more, not just in our PCR testing, but also in our rapid testing.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: I think a lot of people still, especially as we’re going into the cooler, drier months, still have questions about testing. Who should be getting tested? How often should people be getting tested? What kind of tests should they be using?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: The whole point is to have accessible, affordable tests for when you need or want one and that’s exactly what all of the scale up has been about.
Certainly, if you have any symptoms that are suggestive of Covid-19, you should go and get a test. And I would say, if you have access to a rapid test first, get that one. If you have easy access to a PCR, get that one.
So anybody who has symptoms should of course get a test and then consult with their healthcare provider, but certainly quarantine until you have the results of that test.
Then many people are using tests for asymptomatic screening like they’re doing in our K through 12 systems, like they’re doing in many of our higher ed, and many are also using it as people are starting to gather for the holidays. For example, if you want to have a gathering and you have a whole group of people who are vaccinated, who have been practicing prevention measures for the weeks before the gathering, and really want that extra amount of reassurance, you can get a test to make sure that you’re safe to gather.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: You mentioned the patients who have now been diagnosed with this new variant here in the United States. One of them is a patient in Minnesota and this is a person who was fully vaccinated and had a booster as well. So we’re advising people to get vaccinated, get a booster — but then we hear about this particular person that sounds like the symptoms are mild. What level of concern does this present?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: I think we have to understand the whole circumstance there. We’re still learning a lot about this case and about all of the contacts. It may very well be that this case had been one of 1,000 people who had been exposed to Omicron. And this was the only case that turned positive, in which case it would have been indicated that our vaccines are working very well.
It also is very helpful to understand that this person had mild symptoms that have, to my understanding, resolved pretty swiftly. So this may very well be actually a story of vaccine success and not necessarily one of vaccine failure.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: I do want to ask about this issue of natural immunity. It comes up quite a bit. People who have had Covid feel like they have this infection-acquired immunity, wondering why they still need to get the vaccine. It’s been a lot of back and forth on this. Should there be some plan in place to be able to figure out if someone actually has antibodies, has immunity, and therefore doesn’t either need to be vaccinated now, or get a booster now, whatever it may be?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: This is really an important question and still one that is under study. The thing I think that’s really important to understand here is the more mutations you have in a variant, the more you would like to bolster your immunity to have as much immunity as possible to overcome that variant.
And so what we know now with the Omicron variant is more immunity will be better. So if you have previously had an infection, you will definitely be more protected if you also get a vaccine. And that’s really the goal here — to try to provide the most amount of protection as possible so people will be protected against severe disease and ideally against infection altogether.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Typically when something like this happens, we’re used to hearing from the CDC right away. Do you think the country would have benefited from hearing from you when this variant actually came out?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: We were all working together through the holiday weekend and we had a statement as soon as this came out, and we intend to, and will continue to be fully transparent with all of the data that we are learning as soon as we are learning it.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: So you weren’t being sidelined in any way.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Oh, absolutely not. We have been collaborating and working through through the weekend all together.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Okay, Dr. Walensky, please keep in touch. We want to keep hearing from you and keep us informed on what’s happening Omicron.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Well, absolutely do. Thank you so much for having me.
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