Omicron variant: We don’t need to go into panic mode right now, physician says

Dr. Calvin Sun, Monsoon Diaries CEO, clinical assistant professor, and attending physician in emergency medicine in NYC, weighs in on the early information surrounding the Omicron variant and New York City's vaccine mandate for children ages 5-11.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: So let's get back to where things stand on the variant right now. As Anjalee was saying, we're still learning about the specifics of this from a science standpoint. But at least the cases we're hearing about, it does feel like they aren't as severe as initially feared. What's your assessment?

CALVIN SUN: Yeah, so we're getting a little busy. You couldn't find me because there were so many people testing for COVID. Omicron is scary. And there are a lot of people who are getting tested, and I want to say hi to them before they go. But it's where we are-- concerned but not panicked. And these are people who look really good. All of them who are fully vaccinated, some will get infected.

Seatbelts don't prevent car accidents. But seatbelts will prevent your chances of being hospitalized. You may still go to the hospital after the car accident, but the chances of staying in the hospital is lower if you're wearing a seatbelt or having a car with airbags. So where we stand right now is most of the people who are unvaccinated are the ones being hospitalized, at least 85% from the emerging data out. So it's actually showing that the disease with at least the predominantly fully vaccinated is a mild course, if you are to be infected. But for the fully unvaccinated, the chances of being hospitalized is way higher.

AKIKO FUJITA: You said that you're getting a lot busier in your hospital with case counts going up. Talk to me about what you've seen.

CALVIN SUN: There's a lot of worried well. And I have to do a lot of cautioning about not stealing all my toilet paper from the local supermarkets. And we need those this winter. So it's really just being concerned, validating the concerns, but also making sure they don't go into panic mode because we don't need that right now. We're fully vaccinated now. Last year, exactly a year ago to this date, there was no vaccine made available to the public.

Therefore, if something like omicron came around last year without a vaccine, it's like driving down a highway when it's about to get busier and busier without a seatbelt made available to us. I would be a little more concerned last year. This year is a lot more reassurance since that we have working seatbelts. We had a year of research of all of us wearing seatbelts. And it's been working out so far.

It should be a concern. It's like hearing that there's going to be a car pile-up late down the highway, so you do your best, putting on those seatbelts. Get boosted. Do your best before you get there. It may be worrying about something that hasn't happened yet. We just do our best up as we get to that point.

AKIKO FUJITA: You are right there in New York City, where we heard the mayor this morning saying that vaccine mandates will now be extended to private sector workers, also kids who are 5 to 11 years old. Number one, on the private sector, specifically those workers, is it time to extend that vaccine mandate to boosters as well, especially given the time that has lapsed now between those who initially got the two-dose vaccine?

CALVIN SUN: Yeah, omicron is hitting at the worst possible time. It's like a perfect storm. It's winter, so more people are going to spend time indoors, exposing each other to COVID and flu and all the cold viruses because you're spending more time indoors. You're at a point where most of us who got vaccinated in New York are going to have our antibodies wane at the six to eight-month mark. So it's like a perfect storm to spread a new variant like omicron.

So I wish we never had to get to a point where we needed mandates. But yet we do have mandates that you have to put on a seatbelt when you're driving. You cannot be texting while driving. You should not be driving drunk. We have those mandates.

So I think at a point where you're extending those mandates for the safety of all, when we're all on this highway of life together, you should extend that mandate to make sure we're wearing our seatbelts, not being fully vaccinated-- not just being fully vaccinated, but also being boosted, which means make sure that your car has working airbags. You want to do your best up until the point where if you fail to-- if you want to be as prepared as possible because if you fail to prepare, then you have to prepare to fail.

AKIKO FUJITA: So you're saying that boosters should be mandated as well, specifically around the kids, though, 5 to 11-year-olds getting that vaccine mandate. To what extent are the patients that you're seeing come through the door at your hospital younger patients? How much of those case counts have you seen tick up?

CALVIN SUN: So if you're fully vaccinated-- and it's all conditional, right? If you're fully vaccinated as of last week, you may not need the booster. But if your last dose was more than six to eight months ago, then I think the booster is warranted. We only make medical recommendations. Doctors cannot mandate you. We make medical recommendations. Patient autonomy is highly valued in our medical care system. So it's up to you whether your risk tolerance affords such thing as a booster.

Mandates is a political decision that, unfortunately, is way beyond my control. When it comes to kids coming to hospitals, the ones that are sickest are the unvaccinated. The ones that are just testing for routine testing, whether they have COVID or not, are the ones who have been vaccinated. It's pretty dramatic that the risk isn't just your symptoms now. It's the risk of developing long-term COVID and disability from having COVID. And these kids do not deserve that fate if they can help it.

If you can do everything as possible that you could to prevent the possibility of not only just getting infected with COVID, but also developing long-term disability from COVID, then why not do that? And we know that the vaccines actually treat the symptoms of long COVID, if not actually make them go away altogether.

The Yale School of Medicine has been studying a dramatic signal that shows that people who have had long COVID, adults or kids, who have been vaccinated have those symptoms ameliorate, if not disappear all entirely. So it is something that we should always do our best. But again, this is a new time. Emerging data is still coming out. But all we know right now, vaccines are safe. Getting COVID is not safe unvaccinated.

AKIKO FUJITA: And finally, doctor, you talked about the risks that come with the colder winter months as we spend more and more time indoors. It certainly doesn't feel like we're going to go back to the day where the restrictions were so stringent early on in the pandemic, but is it time to rethink some of these social distancing rules, too? I mean, I'm thinking about going into restaurants in New York City, for example. They're completely packed. Yes, there is a vaccine mandate in place. But are there additional steps that you think may need to be considered now, especially with the new variant in place?

CALVIN SUN: Yeah, it's not just what you do, but how you do it. So when I do indoor dinings, I'm not going to walk into a giant packed nightclub, where everyone's partying like it's spring break versus a restaurant that has big open windows with a good ventilation and, you know, opens the windows with good airflow. It's not about what you do, but how you do it. I'm not going to walk into a packed nightclub right now because it's not a good look. I don't like crowds. And, you know, in the wintertime, you know, where am I going to put my coat? And there's an omicron variant.

So the restaurant has fewer people. It's well more-- it's more space. It has good ventilation. It's well ventilated. It's not in a basement. Then that's a different story. Then I'm more comfortable doing indoor dining, especially if they check the vaccine proof at the door with our IDs. So it's-- the consideration is what you do and your risk tolerance and what you're ethically allowing your exposure to be. Because whatever you do in your indoor dining this winter, you're going to potentially bring that home to your loved ones and your families.

So you choose wisely which establishment you want to go. Look inside before you make that decision. Is the bar that you love packed today? Then come on a Sunday night. You don't have to go on a Saturday night. Or if the bar is completely empty, it's the same bar, same activity. Just schedule then.

AKIKO FUJITA: Some good things to consider. Dr. Calvin Sun, it's good to talk to you today. He's a clinical assistant professor and attending physician in emergency medicine in New York City.