As Covid’s omicron variant continues to rip across the United States, causing record numbers of infections and hospitalizations, new coronavirus myths keep bubbling up.
The variant has been the subject of constant scientific scrutiny since it was first detected in South Africa in late November. Recent studies have unveiled its strengths and weaknesses: It’s four times more transmissible than the delta variant, it causes less severe physical symptoms than previous variants, and Covid boosters significantly increase your protection against it.
In total, the World Health Organization has collected data from more than 5,800 studies surrounding Covid-19 from all over the world. But despite the data, pandemic falsehoods are still circulating — and omicron seems to have given some of them new life.
CNBC Make It asked a trio of leading infectious disease experts for the biggest Covid misconceptions they’re hearing right now. Here’s what they said:
Myth: Vaccines don’t work because vaccinated people are catching omicron
It’s true that vaccinated people can catch omicron: A two-dose regimen of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine only provides 22.5% protection against symptomatic infection from omicron, according to an early study from South Africa last month.
But crucially, the study observed, getting vaccinated helps keep your symptoms mild if you do get sick, reducing your chances of hospitalization or death. And if you add a booster shot, your protection against symptomatic infection rises significantly to 75%, according to real-world data from the U.K.
“The vaccine does work, and that’s been clearly shown by both death rates and hospitalization rates when comparing vaccinated people to unvaccinated people,” says Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital who served on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that approved Covid vaccines in 2020.
Not all states publicly track patients’ vaccination status in hospitals, but the ones that do back up Sawyer’s claims.
According to data compiled by Time, unvaccinated people account for a large percentage of hospitalized Covid patients in states like South Carolina, Montana and Mississippi. And recent data from New York State found that unvaccinated residents had a 13-times higher risk for hospitalization than vaccinated residents amid the state’s omicron surge in late December.
That’s because the vaccines prompt your body to produce an arsenal of Covid-fighting immune cells that work together to fend off the virus. Antibodies, which help prevent you from getting sick, are only the first line of defense: If you do get infected, your body’s vaccine-induced T cells target and destroy virus-infected cells to make your symptoms less severe.
Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist and medical director at Northwell Health’s North Shore University Hospital, says he constantly reminds people that the “value of the vaccine” extends to reducing severe illness and hospitalizations.
“Hopefully, we can keep reminding ourselves about that fact,” he says.
Myth: Omicron infections are too mild to be dangerous
Dr. Shaun Truelove, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says he’s seen lots of portrayals of omicron as “super mild” and “flu and cold-like.”
While omicron’s physical symptoms can sometimes resemble the flu or common cold, its rate of transmission is much higher. It’s more transmissible and better at evading existing antibodies than previous Covid variants, too.
In other words, Truelove says, omicron is far more severe than the cold or influenza. And it’s the reason hospitals across the country have gone into emergency mode in recent weeks, declaring they’re at full capacity, he adds.
“Even if it’s same severity [of symptoms], it produces — in terms of numbers — way more hospitalizations and deaths,” he says. “I think people keep missing that point.”
Additionally, omicron is still a form of Covid. If you catch it, even if your symptoms are mild, you’re still enabling the virus to keep circulating — and the more Covid spreads, especially in unvaccinated populations, the more chances it has to potentially mutate into another dangerous variant.
Myth: There are still many unknowns about long-term Covid vaccine safety
It’s been more than a year since the first Covid vaccine was administered in the U.S. Since then, nearly 250 million people across the country have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet Sawyer says much of the country’s unvaccinated population is still concerned about “what we might not know about these vaccines,” particularly in terms of long-term safety.
“We have given hundreds of millions of doses of these vaccines, including in young children, five to 11,” Sawyer says. “So if there was some mysterious side effect that was going to emerge, we would see it by now and know about it.”
Long-term vaccine side effects are extremely rare. For example, J&J’s one-shot vaccine carries a very small risk of “thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome,” a severe blood clotting disorder. Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines can increase the risk of myocarditis, a heart inflammation condition, in men under age 29 — but those cases are often mild, typically resolving on their own.
For Sawyer, the vaccine’s benefits greatly outweigh its risks. As of Friday, roughly 63% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Of those fully vaccinated, approximately 38% have received a booster dose, which experts say is critical in protecting yourself against omicron.
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