Special Edition Open Mics with Dr. Stites: Update on Omicron and How It Impacts Seniors

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The number of COVID patients at The University of Kansas Health System continues to be concerning. 69 with the active virus are being treated. Only five of those active cases are patients who are fully vaccinated. 13 COVID patients are in the ICU and 12 are on ventilators.

“Overall, it is a very low percentage of hospitalized patients who are vaccinated,” said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at The University of Kansas Hospital. “This continues to be a pandemic of two populations – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.”

Despite the rising number of cases, the vaccine still works at helping prevent hospitalizations and death. Dr. Hawkinson said boosters have shown a good response to Omicron with an increase in neutralizing antibodies.

“We are steeper than at any point during this pandemic,” said Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer of The University of Kansas Health System in reference to the graph showing the steep rise in national COVID-19 cases. “And it’s still going straight up.”

A reporter question included asking about how to determine what symptoms should prompt people to stay home from work or school to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Symptoms alone cannot distinguish between a common cold, Omicron and Delta,” Dr. Stites said. He said they’ve seen patients present with a variety of symptoms so testing is important. Special guest Dr. Rachael Liesman, Director, Clinical Microbiology at The University of Kansas Health System, said that rapid antigen tests may have decreased sensitivity to detecting Omicron, based on a recent summary released by the CDC. This could be a challenge.

If that rapid antigen test is positive for COVID-19, you now have information to begin treating it. You can also see a false negative with a rapid antigen test, so if that happens and you still feel ill, you should get a PCR test to confirm if it is COVID-19, she said.

She confirmed that it may be harder to get tests and results because of the high demand. “The laboratories are as overwhelmed as the rest of the healthcare workers,” she said. “We are struggling to staff our laboratories and that is a nationwide shortage.”

Dr. Liesman also reminded people that flu could impact lab capacity for testing, but masking, social distancing and vaccinations – getting the flu vaccine too – can help.

Dr. Stites and Dr. Hawkinson discussed the recent CDC revised guidance around shortening isolation times for asymptomatic positive people from 10 days to five days. They said it is important to understand why this change was made and what the new guidance really says. Dr. Stites explained that the CDC recognized there is a shortage of essential workers, so this new guidance may help people in important positions get back to work after five days if they are not presenting symptoms. It is also important to note that the CDC instructed those who are returning from isolation to wear a mask to help prevent any potential spread.

A question was asked about overall masking protocols and if masks continue to work. Dr. Hawkinson reiterated that CDC guidance on masks have not changed and masking is still essential in helping to prevent spread. He said the fit needs to be good and that while cloth masks may not be as effective as surgical masks, they still can reduce spread. Wear what you can.

Dr. Stites shared a sobering statistic about seniors. 1 in 100 Americans over the age of 65 have died from COVID-19. Dr. Jessica Kalender-Rich, Geriatric Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, The University of Kansas Health System, joined the special edition program to provide an update on the nursing home community.

“We are seeing case numbers lower for the fully vaccinated and hospitalizations lower for those fully vaccinated,” she said. “What’s great is that the vaccination rates among residents is high, but the booster rates are pretty low. We really have to get these folks boosted.”

She also said that new federal rules mean nursing facilities cannot restrict visitors now, except in dire circumstances. “So we have to rely on visitors to not come when they are sick or exposed,” she said.

She is also worried about staffing in nursing facilities. Vaccination rates and booster rates for staff are not optimal, so there is fear that they could get sick. It mirrors the potential issues facing all health care workers who are risking getting infected, are stressed, and sometimes even villainized for trying to help patients.

Overall, she said that senior care situation is still much better now than when the pandemic began.

A community question was asked about the lack of urgency around antiviral drugs, but both Dr. Stites and Dr. Hawkinson challenged the lack of urgency claim by praising the new drugs that are coming out now. “There are great drugs coming out. There is urgency. The amount of new antivirals coming out so quickly is amazing,” said Dr. Stites.