By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla
Washington, Jan 12 (EFE).- As the United States faces a record wave of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations due to the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, health authorities around the country are in the crosshairs due to confusion surrounding how many days to isolate if exposed and facemask use.
The contradictory messages were repeated on Wednesday at the White House’s weekly press briefing on Covid-19, where President Joe Biden’s coronavirus team was unable to clarify what kind of facemask people should use to protect themselves against the new variant.
The director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky, denied that her agency is studying whether to recommend that Americans use a “better quality” facemask and said that, in effect, “any” mask is better than no mask at all.
But at the same press briefing, Jeff Zients, the coordinator of the government’s pandemic response team, said that the White House is “seriously” considering facilitating access to masks that provide better protection, including the KN95 or N95 masks, rather than the widely-available cloth or paper masks.
“Right now, we are strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans, and we’ll continue to follow the science here. The CDC is in the lead, but … this is an area that we’re actively exploring,” Zients said.
Walensky ended up admitting that the CDC will update its Web page to help Americans select what kind of mask to obtain and how to use it correctly.
The CDC director, a recognized scientist who has headed the prestigious institution since the start of the Biden administration, has been in the eye of the storm in recent weeks over her messages and recommendations.
At the end of December, she recommended that people infected with Omicron but showing no symptoms end their isolation period after five days without needing to get a negative Covid test, a decision spurred by the lack of personnel at work in various economic sectors, including hospitals, because of the longer isolation period that had prevailed up until that point.
After that, the American Medical Association screamed bloody murder because, it said: “With hundreds of thousands of new cases daily and more than a million positive reported cases on January 3, tens of thousands – potentially hundreds of thousands of people – could return to work and school infectious if they follow the CDC’s new guidance on ending isolation after five days without a negative test.”
Last Friday, Walensky offered an unexpected telephone press conference, the first since she has headed the CDC, to defend herself against the criticism.
In that call, she tried to clear up the prevailing confusion regarding isolation saying that the start of symptoms should be considered Day Zero and that a person in isolation could go out in public again on the sixth day if they are asymptomatic and always use a facemask.
The issue of masks is a matter that has dogged Walensky for a long time, specifically since May, when the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people did not need to use a facemask, a recommendation that it later modified.
The confusing recommendations come amid a precipitous rise in Covid-19 infections in the US, where the Omicron variant, which is much more transmissible than earlier coronavirus strains, already accounts for 98 percent of the newly detected cases.
The country, which on Jan. 3 surpassed the one million mark for daily confirmed cases for the first time, on Tuesday set a new record for hospital admissions due to Covid-19, with more than 145,000 people being treated for the virus at hospitals around the US.
Given that situation, the government’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Wednesday at the press conference said that “everybody” will wind up contracting the coronavirus sooner or later, although he defended the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing serious illness.
He said that almost everybody will become exposed to the virus and sooner or later will probably be infected, but if a person is vaccinated and receives booster shots the chances that they will get seriously ill are “very, very low.”
He insisted that Covid-19 cannot be eradicated, although he did say that ultimately it will be brought under control.
According to the CDC, vaccines have enabled the risk of hospitalization with the Omicron variant to be reduced by 53 percent compared with the earlier Delta variant, while the intensive care unit admission rate has dropped by 74 percent and the death rate by 91 percent.
Despite the relatively good news in terms of these figures, because the Omicron variant is so highly transmissible, the absolute number of Omicron cases is markedly higher than for the Delta variant and experts say that the lower hospitalization percentages combined with the much higher overall caseload could still result in significant stress on the US hospital system.