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Coronavirus Update - New Information on Omicron, Boosters, Covid Pills and Vaccine Cards

Omicron’s presence in the U.S. is rising.
The new variant already accounts for about 3 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S. — and in some areas of the country, that number is closer to 13 percent. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky warned on December 15 that health officials "expect to see the proportion of omicron cases here in the United States continue to grow in the coming weeks.” Early data suggest that the omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant variant, delta, which is about twice as contagious as previous strains. Health experts emphasize that boosting and masking in indoor public areas will play a key role in helping to curb the spread of the virus.

Omicron Scare Boosts Booster Shots
If there is a silver lining to the emergence of the latest COVID-19 variant of concern — omicron — Nebraska physician Mark Rupp says it may be that more people agree they need to get a vaccine or a booster.

The data seem to back up Rupp's hope. From November 30, just after the Thanksgiving holiday, to December 4, the average daily number of booster shots went from just over 576,000 to almost 906,000. As of December 10, just about 25 percent of those who are fully vaccinated had gotten a booster, with an even higher percentage of older adults getting a third Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shot or a second shot if their first dose was the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Among the fully vaccinated, 38 percent of Americans 50 and older and 49 percent of those 65 and older have received a booster.

The latest variant has alerted people that this pandemic is not over, says Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Nobody is now saying that at New Year's we'll be celebrating the end of this event," says Blendon, who has been analyzing public opinion on health for decades. "They're now suddenly giving you Christmas warnings." Recent polls show "that the presence of the third variant clearly is having a psychological effect on people."

Can COVID Pills End the Pandemic?
Oral antivirals could hit the market soon. Here’s what that means for the course of COVID

The U.S. may soon have access to two new antiviral pills that are designed to prevent hospitalization and death from COVID-19 in people who are most at risk for developing a serious case of the disease. If authorized, the first-of-their-kind treatments, from drugmakers Merck and Pfizer, could help to curtail the roughly 1,000 daily U.S. deaths still being caused by a coronavirus infection, though experts stress that the vaccines remain the most important tool in the fight against COVID.

Unlike current COVID-19 treatments that are administered in health care facilities by injection or an IV, these oral antivirals can be dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home, making them more accessible and convenient for patients and health care providers. Data under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows that Molnupiravir, the pill from Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in high-risk patients by about 30 percent in clinical trials. Pfizer’s pill, whose brand name is Paxlovid, was shown in trials to cut risk by nearly 90 percent, the company said.

“It's another tool to add for those people who are at high risk for having hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, and I think it's a really important tool for them,” says Jason Pogue, a clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy and an infectious diseases clinical pharmacist at Michigan Medicine. “But there are some caveats that are going to come with that.”

-Diagnosing the disease early is crucial
Importantly, these new medications need to be started early in the disease course, shortly after symptoms begin. “And that’s where some of the challenges can come into play,” Pogue says, “because it's kind of human nature” to wait a few days when you first get a runny nose or scratchy throat to see how things play out. “But the exact opposite is what we really need to do in this situation,” he adds.

The reason? Both Molnupiravir and Paxlovid block the virus from replicating inside the body. “The longer [people] wait, the more steam the virus is able to acquire, and the less likely it is that these medicines will help,” says Mark Rupp, M.D., a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Merck’s product tricks the virus into making mistakes as it multiplies, Rupp explains. And if you think about the virus as having a “big stack of lumber that it needs to make a dwelling,” Pfizer’s pill “prevents the virus from being able to cut the lumber into the right-sized pieces to build the house,” he says.

Hand in hand with recognizing symptoms at the onset is having access to testing to confirm a case of COVID-19. “And I continue to think that in this country we continue to have a problem with people having access to ready testing that's convenient and cheap and accurate. So that's going to be, I think, a real hurdle that we have to clear in order to use these drugs most effectively,” Rupp says.

Results for PCR tests administered at low or no cost at many health care facilities can take up to a few days to come in. Rapid tests that deliver same-day results are also available — some can even be purchased over the counter at drugstores and completed at home. However, these tend to come with out-of-pocket expenses and may not be sensitive enough to pick up an infection early in the disease course, when the drugs are most effective.

-Pills are not a replacement for prevention
For those who have compromised immune systems or other risk factors that make them more likely to get seriously ill from a coronavirus infection, these new oral treatments could be “a game changer,” by helping to keep them out of the hospital, David Dowdy, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a recent media briefing. But they “are not going to be a game changer for prevention, the way the vaccines are,” he added.

Treatments, pill or otherwise, also don’t help thwart transmission of the virus, which continues to spread at high levels throughout most of the U.S. Its continued spread also enables it to morph into new and potentially more dangerous variants, as evidenced by the rapid and worrisome emergence of the omicron variant in South Africa. What’s more, experts are still reviewing the safety data for the pills, and it may be that some populations are excluded from their use.

Even if the FDA OKs the new treatments and adds them to the COVID arsenal, we’re still “a long ways” from being done with the pandemic, Rupp adds. And older adults, in particular, need to continue to maintain a level of caution while the battle continues.

His advice: If you start to experience any COVID-like symptoms, even if you are vaccinated, talk to your health care provider. “Don't delay. Go ahead and get tested and get put on medicine that will hopefully prevent that breakthrough case from becoming more severe and landing you in the hospital,” he says.

Also, get vaccinated if you haven’t already, to help prevent the need for treatment in the first place. “The thing that would change the trajectory of the entire pandemic would be increasing vaccination rates, which is something that we still are really struggling with in this country,” Pogue says.

Lost Your COVID-19 Vaccine Card? Here's How to Get It Back
Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is fast becoming a necessity, with talk of booster shots on the horizon and vaccine requirements affecting many aspects of day-to-day life — from dining out to working in an office. But what if you've lost that awkwardly shaped white card — it doesn't quite fit in a standard wallet — or never got one in the first place?

Luckily, most vaccine providers and state health departments have already put in place measures to help you get a new one, or at least obtain a digital record of your vaccination.

Step one: Check and see if your vaccine provider, be it a retail pharmacy or a health department, allows you to access your vaccine records online.

"If a patient misplaces their vaccine record, they have several options,” says CVS Pharmacy retail communications manager Matt Blanchette. CVS allows customers to look up their vaccine records by logging into the CVS website or the CVS app (you'll have to download it and create an account).

What's more, Blanchette says you can call the CVS location where you were vaccinated and request a record of your vaccination. “Any CVS pharmacy team member can print a vaccine record reflecting the date of administration and vaccine administered,” he adds.

Walgreens can also verify patient COVID-19 vaccination status if need be, including providing electronic copies of COVID-19 dose cards, according to a spokesperson for the retailer.

It's likely other pharmacies and health clinics will do the same, or will at least point you in the right direction when you call.

And don't forget to check your email. If you signed up for your shot online and provided an email address, Blanchette says, a vaccine record is automatically sent to that address post-vaccination.

Immunizations are also reported to the appropriate state health department's Immunization Information System (IIS). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has IIS records for all 50 states listed online, where you can look up and obtain a digital copy of your COVID-19 vaccination records after verifying some personal information.

A record of your COVID-19 vaccination should be relatively easy to obtain by going back to the place where you got vaccinated. But if you really want that physical card issued by the CDC, which does not provide replacement cards, you may have better luck contacting your state health department, either by phone or email.

All states should have a digital record of their vaccinations, and some, but not all, will send out another physical card. West Virginia, for example, has set up a website where you can apply to get a replacement COVID-19 vaccine card sent to you via the mail.

Once you've gotten a new card or a digital record of your vaccination, be sure to store it safely. Among the easiest ways is to take a picture of your card with your smartphone. Experts and officials warn against posting it on social media to avoid exposing personal information and setting yourself up for possible identity theft. You can also make a copy of your card or a digital printout and store it where you keep other important papers.

Finally, resist the urge to laminate your card so it can be used to record your second shot — or possible boosters.

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