There is light at the end of the tunnel but the tunnel is long.
In every state across the United States, the number of new coronavirus cases daily were lower than the previous week in early February, according to the Washington Post tracker.
At home, Sanford Health leaders are cautiously optimistic about current numbers but know things change quickly as new data is released.
“We’re on the downhill side of the omicron surge in the Dakotas and Minnesota,” Chief Physician Jeremy Cauwels, M.D., said in a Feb. 10 Facebook Live Q&A with Sanford Health News.
Watch: Facebook Live Q&A, Feb. 10
There is a slight decrease in the number of hospitalized patients and patients in the ICU, which is also good news. Additionally, staff out sick due to omicron have significantly dropped — by 75% — back to more normal numbers since mid-January.
New omicron subvariants emerge
There’s another twist in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The omicron variant now has a subvariant which seems to spread more quickly. It’s called BA.2 or commonly referred to as “stealth.”
If you’re wondering about your protection following a recent case of COVID-19, Dr. Cauwels said you’re likely OK.
Researchers now know you’re much less likely to get re-infected after a recent infection, but they’re still unsure how long that protection lasts.
“A previous infection does do a good job of protecting you much like the vaccine does,” Dr. Cauwels said. “Individuals who went out and got their vaccine early, and then were infected at some point, are well protected.”
In fact, new data in the United States shows the likelihood of a vaccinated person who has had a breakthrough case being hospitalized, being put on a ventilator or dying from COVID-19 is “extremely low,” he said.
The U.S. data is key with a different population than studies done with other countries and younger populations.
“A 20-year-old gentleman in Malawi is different than a 65-year-old overweight gentleman in Minnesota, and I think it’s important that we now have the data to say the Minnesotan has a certain rate of protection as well,” Dr. Cauwels said. “Those differences are what we were waiting for on long-term safety after vaccine and infection.”
If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, you’re recommended to mask in public and test at home after a few days to ensure you’re not walking around exposing others.
New data on natural and ‘hybrid’ immunity
We are learning more about the body’s natural immunity after COVID-19 infection which — Dr. Cauwels said — has become a point of controversy.
As many rely on international data, there has not been U.S. data to show how long a patient is protected or how well a patient is protected and whether or not that patient is truly safe. It requires a year of studying and some of that research is now complete.
New data from studies published by Johns Hopkins, the CDC and the New England Journal of Medicine show that a prior COVID-19 infection provides effective and durable protection against hospitalization and death if you are re-infected.
The NEJM study, published Feb. 9, found that natural infection protects against severe disease caused by the virus as well as a variety of variants — alpha, beta, delta or omicron.
Based on the data, the researchers estimated the effectiveness of previous infection in preventing against severe, critical or fatal COVID-19 was 87.8% against omicron.
“The takeaway is, if you haven’t gotten COVID-19, it’s absolutely important you get a vaccine and keep up on your boosters to avoid a severe illness,” Dr. Cauwels added. “If you’ve been fully vaccinated and previously infected, there’s a good chance you’ll get through that infection, and any subsequent infections will not be as serious.”
Long COVID data proves effects one year later
Long COVID, or long haulers syndrome, is any combination of symptoms that continues after that initial phase of infection, lasting anywhere from four weeks to six months or more following infection.
Studies have indicated 1 in 10 people infected with COVID-19 will experience long-haul symptoms like breathing complications, brain fog, and loss of taste or smell, among others.
Other new data further confirms COVID-19’s impact on the heart and long-term cardiovascular health one year later.
Early on, it was clear that COVID-19 can damage heart and blood vessels while patients are ill with blood clots, heart inflammation, arrhythmias and heart failure. Now, the large study demonstrated the virus’ impact is long-lasting a year post-infection.
It’s yet another reason why the vaccine is so important, Dr. Cauwels said. Not only will it decrease severe disease, but it also helps protect patients from the long-term effects after infection.
“These are known complications which are drastically reduced if you’ve been vaccinated,” he added.
If you’re experiencing difficulty with COVID-19 symptoms during or after an infection, contact your provider, and learn more about COVID-19 care at Sanford Health.
Vaccine in progress for kids under 5
Children 6 months to 4 years old in the United States could begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine as early as this spring once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moves to authorize it for that age group.
Recently, Pfizer-BioNTech announced it is postponing its application to the FDA to expand the use of its two-dose vaccine, which means it will not be as available for kids as soon as previously thought.
According to the FDA, new data has recently emerged. After requesting emergency use authorization in early 2022, Pfizer said it will wait for data on a three-dose vaccine series. The company believes three doses “may provide a higher level of protection in this age group.”
“We believe additional information regarding the ongoing evaluation of a third dose should be considered as part of our decision-making for potential authorization,” the FDA’s website said.
What we do know, Dr. Cauwels said, is the dosage continues to decrease as children get smaller.
Researchers are still working to determine how effective the vaccine is for the 2- to 4-year-old age group and what adjustments in dosage would be appropriate to ensure safe protection against the virus.
“I am very much interested in what the group’s vote is,” Dr. Cauwels said. “They didn’t come to the same rock solid conclusion that they did in the 5- to 12-year-old group so I think it’s important that they have this discussion.”
According to Pfizer, data on a third dose is expected in early April.
Information in this story was accurate when it was posted. As the COVID-19 pandemic changes, scientific understanding and guidelines may have changed since the original publication date.
- COVID vaccine boosters available at Sanford Health
- Booster dose builds immunity as omicron variant spreads
- What the new COVID quarantine and isolation guidelines mean