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This pandemic winter looks a lot like last year's, but vaccines are saving lives

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Merry Christmas, during a new surge of the coronavirus. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that omicron has already become the dominant variant of the virus here in the U.S. And scientists say a rapid rise in cases is well underway. NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee joins us. Rhitu, thanks for being with us.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Of course, Scott.

SIMON: Omicron has taken over at a time when hospitals in many places are already kind of taken over themselves. What did doctors say about what they fear about this winter surge?

CHATTERJEE: So I asked that same question to Dr. Preeti Malani. She's an infectious disease doctor at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. And she said she's feeling sad when she thinks about the weeks ahead.

PREETI MALANI: Because I know that there are so many individuals out there and so many families where the vaccination rates are low. And we're going to have a lot of transmission in the coming days.

CHATTERJEE: You know, Scott, it's become very clear from the data so far from the U.S., as well as other countries, that we are dealing with a much, much more transmissible virus, so lots of people will get infected. And as Malani said, we still have lots of unvaccinated people in the country, and so she expects hospitals to be overwhelmed with COVID patients.

And just this week, in anticipation of that, the CDC changed its guidance on how long health care workers need to isolate if they get a breakthrough infection and test positive for coronavirus. The CDC now says those nurses or doctors, for example, can return to work after just seven days if they test negative. It used to be 10 days before. And if we really see hospitals slammed with patients, the CDC says medical staff could return after just five days.

SIMON: Rhitu, we have seen that data from South Africa seem to suggest this new variant might cause a milder form of symptoms. Do we see that here in the U.S. and other countries, too?

CHATTERJEE: So it's still early days, but one study from England this past week suggests that people infected with omicron are 15 to 20% less likely to need hospitalization compared to delta and about 50 to 60% less likely to spend more than one night in the hospital. I also spoke with doctors here who are treating patients infected with omicron. Dr. Aaron Glatt is the chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai hospital in Long Island. He says all the COVID patients in his hospital have the omicron variant, but...

AARON GLATT: We have no patients that are triply vaccinated in our critical care units. We have no patients even that are doubly vaccinated in our critical care units. The only people that are, unfortunately, still getting very sick are the unvaccinated.

CHATTERJEE: So if that trend holds, that's good news for people who are vaccinated, and it's bad news for those who are not.

SIMON: We do have treatments and tools at our disposal this winter that we didn't have a year ago. What do experts say about how they might mitigate the impact?

CHATTERJEE: Everyone I spoke to said that while omicron wave will be scary, lots of people will get sick, but we are in a much better place than we were, say, last winter because now we have vaccinations. And now, as of this week, we have two new drugs that were approved by the FDA that will further help people stay out of hospitals. One drug is made by Merck, and the other is made by Pfizer. It's called Paxlovid. They're both pills for people who've just gotten sick.

Here's what Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco says about the drugs.

MONICA GANDHI: Paxlovid is likely more effective. It reduces hospitalizations and deaths by up to 89%. That's like a vaccine for those who've declined to vaccinate.

CHATTERJEE: She says given that many Americans are vaccinated and now we have these new drugs, that should give us more hope for 2022. Though while some of these pills will be available in January, the supplies will be fairly limited at first. It's a tool, but not a fix for the unvaccinated who are most at risk.

SIMON: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thanks so much for being with us.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.