JoCo on the Go Podcast: Omicron COVID-19 variant

On JoCo on the Go, episode #120, the Omicron variant has made its way to the Kansas City region. Hear from Johnson County's local health officer about this COVID-19 variant, the signs, symptoms and what you should do if you get sick. The FDA has approved a new treatment for COVID-19, find out what it is and how it can help fight the spread of the virus. Also, learn what the current coronavirus trends are and what impact that is having on our health care system. This episode was recorded on Dec. 22, 2021. For clarification: Dr. LeMaster does not recommend the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 therapy to anyone under any circumstances (although those who have historically received it for rheumatoid arthritis should continue to use it for that indication).

Omicron COVID-19 variant webcast

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Time Subject
00:25 Introduction
00:49 The status of the COVID-19 spread in the county
03:14 The impact on the health care system
05:27 Detection and treatment
08:49 The symptoms of Omicron
11:38 The future of the virus


Theresa Freed 00:00

The Omicron variant has made its way to the Kansas City Region. On this episode hear about this COVID-19 variant: signs, symptoms and what you should do if you get sick.

Announcer 00:10

Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed 00:25

Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Theresa Freed a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. The COVID 19 pandemic continues with a new variant that's been spreading across the world. In recent weeks, Omicron has been detected in Kansas and now the Kansas City region. Here to talk more about that is Johnson County Local Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster. Thanks for being here

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 00:48

Glad to join you today.

Theresa Freed 00:49

Well, first off, can you talk a little bit about what the status of COVID-19 spread is in Johnson County in the region, especially lately.

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 00:57

So we know that the Omicron variant has arrived in the United States for sure. It is rising most quickly in the northeast part of the country, but it is in in our region as well, with the number of cases rising quickly. Last week, nationally, it was responsible for 73% of new cases. That's not distributed evenly across the country. But we know because Omicron transmits very easily and quickly that it will be here and will begin to be among us and have an impact on our hospital systems and on our health care. In the very near future.

Theresa Freed 01:37

That's Omicron. So talking generally about COVID-19 spread in our area, what are we seeing?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 01:43

Well, we're seeing numbers increase Theresa faster than they have at any time since last winter, which was very disappointing to us. We thought with the amount of vaccinations we had, that we might not see as much of that happening. And we know that testing it because there are more people are doing more testing at home. With the rapid antigen tests, we probably are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and the number of new cases that are being diagnosed but they've shot up recently. We think that about 99% of that, however, is still Delta in our area, while the increase in Omicron. Is coming on very quickly. We still think that most of the transmissions that's happening are Delta-related. We're also seeing an increase in hospitalizations. I've been watching the numbers just at KU hospital. And they've climbed every they're just continuing to climb. I think it was in the 80s. Today, with with numbers of cases in that were that were COVID cases at KU Medical Center. And of those the vast majority are unvaccinated people. I think there are two or three people in the hospital among that 80 that are showing up as people that were unvaccinated. Of course, we're mostly focused on those who are actively infected and can infect others, including those who, who they're around. So that's I think some of the situation.

Theresa Freed 03:14

So what kind of impact does that have on the healthcare system. So talking about the resources dedicated just to COVID patients, but also those who don't have COVID, but have emergent issues?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 03:26

Right? That's a very important point. So first, let's just think a little bit about what happens to a COVID patient. So if a person comes in and they're diagnosed with COVID, generally, they're in a special ward in the hospital that is dedicated to the care of COVID patients, and those wards get filled up, and other wards have to be dedicated to the care of those patients. When that happens, then there are less beds available for other people to be admitted to the hospital. So people who have heart disease or lung disease or strokes or problems with their intestines, whatever they're having. They have difficulty also finding a bed because those beds have been filled up by COVID patients. And remember, we're not just admitting everybody who has COVID, but only those that have got problems maintaining their oxygenation. So very quickly, if you find if you find the number of COVID people in the hospital, filling up beds and filling up wards very quickly, you can see that this gets into a situation where it becomes difficult for anybody to get a hospital bed, not just people who have COVID. Now, the other piece of that that's important to talk about is thinking about Omicron itself. So we know that Omicron is very much more transmissible than compared to Delta. And there seems to be some early evidence that the proportion cases that need to be hospitalized is less among Omicron. But if the numbers of cases goes up several fold, let's say four times more people actually get infected with Omicron, you can see that even if only 40% of as many of them need hospitalization as needed them as needed it for Delta, if you've increased the number by three or four fold over Delta, then you can see we're going to have a real problem.

Theresa Freed 05:27

So can you talk a little bit about how the therapies have changed over the last year? Do we know more about the virus and how to treat it? And are there more effective treatments? So fewer people are dying? Because of this?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 05:40

Yes, I think that that's right. Certainly we've got more treatments at various points in people's therapy. And we know what works at different points. So the monoclonal antibody therapies work best for people who aren't yet hospitalized, but are at risk of hospitalization. Whereas some of the more the more impactful, higher potency medications that we give to people who are hypoxic, or who are needing to be ventilated or having to go to the ICU. So we, we have changed the number of therapies we have we and we're administering them at different points in the therapeutic pathway. We also now of course, as people will be aware of there are a couple of new medications that have been that Pfizer has been seeking for has emergency authorization use, which are felt to be effective in preventing hospitalization for people who are at risk of that, who have multiple chronic diseases or who are immunocompromised. And so those are also now available. And we hope to see that’s making some kind of a difference in hospitalization rates.

Theresa Freed 07:00

So are we saying that early detection of the COVID case is really important in order to prevent hospitalizations since we have some of these therapies available?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 07:12

Well, it certainly early detection is, is very important. I think the most important thing about early detection, of course, is that it helps you recognize if you detect when you have very mild symptoms that you have COVID so that you will not mix around with people in your family or in your neighborhood or in your in your social networks. Because you need to be isolating at home, if you are a positive infection you shouldn't be out and about. So the most important thing it does is prevent new infections. In terms of treatment, I think that most of the time we're still treating people who are symptomatic, you know, the treatments, these new Pfizer treatments that have been released, are still not like Tamiflu for the flu, we're still not giving it to everybody who is positive, only those people who are at high risk of hospitalization or who are showing symptoms that looking like they may need to be hospitalized.

Theresa Freed 08:08

And I think, you know, we've recently heard in the call from the chief medical officers in our region that that antibody treatment is actually in the short supply. Is that right?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 08:17

Yeah, that's right. I think that, you know, we're the issue is that we have so many more people who are needing hospitalization now, that of course, you know, that is something that we are going to need more of, you know, it sort of relates back to what you were talking about before. If you have a rapid increase in the number of people that are hospital hospitalized, you're also going to have an even greater number of people who you're thinking about hospitalizing, but you haven't quite done it yet. So all of these things, the downstream impact of all these things are related.

Theresa Freed 08:49

Okay, and so talk a little bit more about Omicron. Can you talk about how it presents because it's a little bit different than the the original COVID virus, right?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 08:57

That's right, that's right. We it presents more like a cold. So you have more sneezing, stuffy nose, upper respiratory infection, you know, before we were saying look for something like a cough or shortness of breath. But in in case of Omicron, it may in fact be presenting more like a cold. So if you develop cold symptoms, it is absolutely worthwhile getting one of the antigen tests and testing yourself to see if that may be positive and if you need to go and get confirmatory testing, remember that we're still considering these antigen tests preliminary however, if you have a positive antigen test, you should not ignore it and say that that is probably wrong. They are very good those all of the tests are very good about detecting disease, sometimes they will not show a positive case. So sometimes there are people who they miss in other words that we say they're not highly sensitive, that means that you could be infected and your antigen test or even your PCR tests be negative. That's been the case right from the beginning. The very best of our of our of our tests are only about 70% sensitive. But if it's if you have a positive test, you should rely on that and isolate.

Theresa Freed 10:20

And so say I test positive for COVID. But I have fairly mild symptoms. How do I treat myself while I'm at home? Do I take anything over the counter or the prescriptions that are being offered?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 10:32

Well, the main thing that you want to do is, is stay at home and isolate you want to be eating separately from and sleeping separately from the rest of the people in your family, wearing a mask, those social distancing things within the family the most important to keep it from spreading to the rest of your family members. They're the only kinds of therapies that we're recommending, for people who are not getting short of breath to the point where they might need hospitalization at this point, we're don't have any kind of immunosuppression are those there's, there's no sort of antibiotic out there, that's going to help somebody, for instance, who has just mild Omicron symptoms, to not progress to a severe infection, we're not treating everyone with steroids or treating everyone with hydroxychloroquine, or, or any of that kind of therapy, where we're at this point, the only people that are getting those advanced treatments are those that are immunosuppressed, or who are at risk of hospitalization.

Theresa Freed 11:38

Okay, and I think you've mentioned that you feel hopeful that we will eventually get through this pandemic. So I know a lot of people are struggling with, you know, is there an end in sight? It feels like it just keeps evolving into a bigger issue, or at least it's not, it's not getting better. So. So what hope do you have to offer our listeners?

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 11:56

Well, there is some possibility, as a result of what's going on with Omicron. If it is much more highly transmissible, it may move through the population much more quickly than Delta did. So it could, in fact, lead us to a situation where we actually end up with herd immunity faster, we're seeing case rates decreasing in South Africa as a result, you know, after Omicron went through it, which is some hope. But that doesn't mean of course, that we want to have people go out and just say, well, let's just let it, let it go. Because a lot of people will die as a result of that, you know, when you just let the virus run in the in the community, you will have many more cases, but you'll also have many more hospitalizations, and deaths. And it's that trade off that we've always struggled with. Because, you know, in this country, it's just not acceptable to just say, let everyone get sick and let those that die die. You know, we're, we're at this point, we don't want one more person to die of COVID. So, you know, at this point, I think what we probably say is, keep your chin up, do what you know to do. Get vaccinated, that's the most important thing that we can do to end the pandemic is for those who have the ability to get vaccinated to get out and get their vaccine, get their booster, that's the best way to protect yourself and your family from COVID. And an ultimately to end the pandemic. We we still have a very high proportion of some parts of the population that remain unvaccinated in particular, the younger populations and if you look at this South Africa experience that was the population in which Omicron was mostly was mostly transmitting, and still, you know, the vast majority of hospitalizations are still those that are unvaccinated. So that's the most important step that people can take.

Theresa Freed 13:46

Alright, very good information and to get more information about COVID-19 in Johnson County, go to Well thank you again for joining us today and providing some great information about the latest on COVID.

Dr. Joseph LeMaster 13:59

Always a pleasure, Theresa.

Announcer 14:00

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