Covid in DC: What you should know about the risks of Omicron and BA.2

The answer, like much else during the coronavirus pandemic, is complicated because it depends on individuals’ personal risk thresholds. And no public outing is zero risk – especially a formal event like the Gridiron dinner held in a hotel basement – with flavors as transferrable as Omicron and its sibling BA.2 being widespread.

“A tuxedo doesn’t prevent infection,” said William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Here’s what you need to know about Covid-19 in the age of Omicron and relaxed public health containment strategies:

How serious is the new Covid variant?

Omicron BA.2 is the dominant variant of Covid-19 in the United States and has been spreading through the air in the same way as other coronavirus variants since late 2019, when the pandemic began, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. It has proven to be far more contagious than the original strain.

“It’s likely that more of it will be released into the air, or less of it will be exposed to become infected, or it’s better at escaping the immune system,” Marr said of BA.2.

Although this strain is more easily transmissible than its predecessors, it is associated with less serious diseases and emerges at a time when the country has plenty of vaccines, drugs, and other therapeutics to combat it.

Vaccines are the gold standard of protection, but they are not bulletproof.

Being fully vaccinated and up to date on booster shots remains the best way to protect yourself against a severe case of Covid. But as time has passed since many people were initially immunized and then boosted, and the development of the virus since its debut in late 2019, vaccines are not as good at preventing infection as they used to be.

Still, the vaccines continue to work well, preventing the worst outcomes — hospitalization, ventilator support, and death — which many infectious disease experts say should be the goal of the U.S. vaccination effort.

“This Omicron and his son by Omicron, BA.2, are so highly contagious that even though you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, they can still infect you,” Schaffner said. “For the average person, that means you will have few symptoms, or maybe no symptoms at all. You will not become seriously ill.”

Protective layers help reduce risk.

Guests attending the Gridiron dinner were required to provide proof of vaccination in order to attend. But the spate of positive tests after dinner – including Attorney General Merrick Garland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) — Emphasize that vaccination is only one way to address the risks of Covid.

Another approach to mitigate risk Their party, which is turning into a superspreader event, is said to require rapid Covid testing on the day of the gathering, Schaffner said. No testing was required to attend the Gridiron Dinner.

While home tests are not as sensitive as polymerase chain Reaction or PCR tests analyzed in a lab, they are good for detecting when someone has a high virus count, which could be when they are most contagious.

“Obviously this virus was also involved in the event and spread and consequently made several people sick,” Schaffner said.

However, the lack of reports of serious illness among officials who have contracted Covid “means the vaccines are doing their job,” he said.

Indoor events with meals have been associated with infection risks throughout the pandemic.

Eating, talking loudly and even singing indoors has been shown to significantly increase the risk of virus spread during the pandemic. At the Gridiron dinner, attendees sat in close proximity for hours, eating, drinking, talking – even shaking hands at the end to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

This scenario means that infected individuals “are releasing a lot of virus into the air,” Marr said. “And…since we’ve seen a lot of cases from out here, the ventilation probably wasn’t adequate.”

“It only takes one person” shedding a lot of virus to spread Covid, she said.

The particles that people emit into the air when they speak are similar to coughing, Marr added.

“Imagine all these people coughing around the room together, and it’s easier for you to imagine that a lot of viruses could be released into the air,” she said.

I was near an infected person for less than 15 minutes. Am I clear?

That 15 minute guide CDC uses to define a “close contact” of a Covid patient – “someone who was less than 6 feet from an infected person … for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period” – is “somewhat arbitrary” said Marr.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday of President Joe Biden’s interactions with the speaker Nancy Pelosi This week, before the California Democrat announced her positive test fell below that threshold. However, Psaki said the White House is “going beyond CDC protocols” when it comes to who surrounds the president and making sure everyone around him is tested regularly.

Studies in restaurants and hospitals suggest transmission can occur in minutes “under the wrong circumstances,” Marr said, situations that require close conversations or an infectious person releasing a lot of viruses into a poorly ventilated space .

“There’s a huge disparity in the amount of virus that people release into the air, so you can stand next to someone for hours and not get infected, or it could happen in just a few minutes,” she said. “Another source of variability is the immune response of the exposed person.”

What if you’re not “average”? Or what if you really don’t want to catch Covid?

Any person aged 65 or older — or of any age who is immunocompromised or has an underlying condition that puts them at serious risk of Covid — needs to “think carefully” about large indoor events, Schaffner said. Several high-profile government officials — from Biden to Pelosi to senior medical adviser Anthony Fauci — fall into this category.

The FDA and CDC recently approved a second booster shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for Americans age 50 and older and most immunocompromised individuals. Biden received his second booster shot on March 30.

Another mitigation strategy is to wear a mask – particularly a quality one like an N95 or KN95 – during such an event as an extra layer on top of vaccination to reduce the risk of infection.

Improving ventilation or air filtration in an event space, whether it’s by keeping doors and windows open or putting in portable air purifiers, “can make a surprisingly big difference,” Marr said, especially if you don’t want to reduce the number of invitees or have a mask requirement introduce.

A combination of approaches — for example, vaccination and testing requirements with optional masks, or mandatory masking and vaccination without having to prove a negative test — can be used to lower, but not eliminate, the risk, Schaffner said.

“People who are either in government in Washington or are elected officials, so much of this activity has to do with human interactions,” Schaffner said. “And so I think people in these circumstances need to think about it really carefully, and I would definitely say they’re at least fully vaccinated.”

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