Physicians around the country facing the latest surge of Covid-19 cases, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, have a straightforward message based on what they're seeing in their emergency rooms: Vaccinations and boosters are having a positive effect.
“The general trend that I’m seeing is, if you’re boosted and you get Covid, you really just at worst end up with bad cold symptoms. It’s not like before where you were coughing, couldn’t say sentences and were short of breath,” said Dr. Matthew Bai, an emergency medicine physician at Mount Sinai Queens in New York City.
“There are obviously exceptions like if you start out with a very weakened immune system, your immune response won’t be as strong with a booster. But in your average person, a booster’s definitely going to make a difference is what I’m seeing,” he said.
Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of critical care services and the Covid-19 unit at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center, said of the roughly 50 patients admitted to the hospital’s Covid unit in the last four weeks, 100 percent of them were unvaccinated.
He said patients who needed to be admitted typically have “shortness of breath, high fevers, being dehydrated like crazy.” He said those who are unvaccinated also “have more illness. What I mean by more illness is more pneumonia, not just a little bit of pneumonia, you have a lot of pneumonia.”
“The people that are coming in unvaccinated have a much larger burden of illness in the lungs than those who are vaccinated,” he said.
Meanwhile, those who had received the booster shot were “almost back to normal” within several days, he said. Those who had not received the booster have tended to “still feel sick after a week, a week and a half or so,” he added.
Patients who have received the booster shot may still have symptoms such as a sore throat, a lot of fatigue and muscle pain, said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Those who are vaccinated but have not got the booster “looked worse, they looked like they felt pretty darn bad. But, again, they didn’t need to be hospitalized,” he said.
"I’m not seeing people who have got two doses and a booster and are coming in profoundly short of breath," he said. "It’s just not happening."
Those who are vaccinated but have not got a booster have shown symptoms such as more coughing, more fever and more fatigue than those who had received a booster, he said.
Meanwhile, Spencer said almost every patient he has seen who needed to be admitted was unvaccinated.
“We’ve known that there are multiple presentations of this disease, that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that we know that those who are vaccinated are significantly less likely to end up seeing me in the hospital and needing to be admitted. That’s for certain,” he said.
The new omicron variant continues to spread rapidly in the United States, making up about 58 percent of all new Covid cases for the week ending Dec. 25, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Early evidence suggests that for most people, at least for those who are up to date on their Covid vaccines, omicron appears less likely to cause severe illness.
A small study from the CDC published Tuesday suggested people who had Covid and are later reinfected with omicron may experience fewer symptoms than they did during their initial bout with the virus.
And last week, reports out of the United Kingdom found that people who were infected with omicron in November and December were about two-thirds less likely to be hospitalized, compared with the delta variant.
Physicians still stressed the importance of getting the vaccine and getting a booster, even if omicron appears less likely to lead to severe illness than delta.
“Especially for those that are above 50-55, anyone with underlying medical conditions, we know that it can decrease the likelihood of you needing to be hospitalized with severe Covid,” Spencer said.
For those who are younger or without underlying medical conditions, he said, “if you can prevent infections in younger folks, you can hopefully prevent infections in older folks, their grandparents, their parents or people that they see and mingle with, especially around the holidays.”
“So, I think from an infection prevention and control standpoint, getting a booster dose in younger folks, in addition to the benefit in terms of severe disease, is quite important,” he said.