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NEW YORK — The ultra-contagious omicron variant is pushing COVID cases to all-time highs and causing chaos as the world struggles, again, to stop the spread.

According to the Associated Press, COVID-19 has killed more than 800,000 Americans in two years while the flu alone typically kills between 12,000 and 52,000 a year. PIX11 spoke with Dr. Syra Madad, an NYC-based epidemiologist on how to keep people safe during this new wave of COVID and amid an ongoing flu season. Watch the full interview HERE.

Q: What is unusual about the omicron variant and how does it differ from previous variants such as delta? 

Dr. Madad: The omicron variant is more transmissible than delta, but preliminary data shows it causes less severe disease than delta. A person’s vaccination status, age, health status and other factors play a role in disease progression and severity.

Q: Does the COVID vaccine protect against omicron? 

Dr. Madad: Yes, the COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide great protection against severe illness. A booster dose re-stimulates the immune system, broadens immunity and helps restore vaccine efficacy against symptomatic illness.

Q: Once someone tests positive, is there a difference in symptoms for those who are vaccinated vs. those who are not? 

Dr. Madad: Vaccinated people who are not immunocompromised may experience no symptoms or some mild symptoms which include: sore throat, runny nose, fever, headache, fatigue, and a cough. Those who are unvaccinated have reported a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe, and can get progressively worse.

Q: If you had COVID earlier in 2020 or 2021, what are the chances of contracting COVID again right now? 

Dr. Madad: The risk of re-infection is 3 to 5 times higher for those who are unvaccinated and had experienced infection previously. Getting vaccinated offers the best protection against re-infection and potentially suffering from severe illness.

Q: Although COVID cases continue to increase throughout New York, a rise in flu cases is also causing concern about what could happen if you contract “flurona.” Are chances of contracting the flu in 2022 lower or higher than contracting COVID?

Dr. Madad: The seasonal flu virus and the coronavirus are two different viruses. Co-infection is possible. With flu activity increasing in NYC, the best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated against both viruses. You can get your flu vaccine at the same time as your COVID-19 booster dose as well to make it more convenient.

Q: Experts have suggested waiting 3-5 days after exposure to COVID to test for the virus. But many people are wondering, how do you know if you’ve been exposed if you have no symptoms?

Dr. Madad: It’s best to quarantine if you think you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Getting tested routinely adds another great layer of preventing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. If you can’t quarantine, try to limit your interactions and always wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask when around others. If you’re positive for the virus, isolate for 5 days followed by wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask for another 5 days.

Q: What can people do today to protect themselves against omicron and other COVID variants?

Dr. Madad: Getting vaccinated is the best protection against severe illness from COVID-19. Given the high rates of community transmission, wearing a mask when indoors or in close contact with others will further protect you and others from getting and/or spreading the virus.

Q: For those who test positive but are vaccinated, is it possible to experience long hauler symptoms?

Dr. Madad:  Vaccination reduces the risk of experiencing long COVID symptoms as well as lower the chances of contracting covid in the first place, as compared to an unvaccinated person. But with high levels of virus spreading in the community, experiencing a breakthrough infection can occur. 

Q: Since omicron has more mutations than delta and is more contagious, do you think more people getting infected with this variant will allow us to achieve herd immunity quicker?

Dr. Madad: Omicron will add more immunity into our population by both the preferred pathway which is through vaccination as well as through those that are unvaccinated and get infected with the variant. The pathway to gain immunity from vaccination is the safest option and more than 1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine is going into arms per day – this includes first, second and additional doses like boosters. 

Q:  Do recommend rapid or PCR tests for COVID if someone is experiencing symptoms?

Dr. Madad: Both are great tools. You can do a rapid at home test if it’s more convenient. These tests are best used to see if you are contagious and can spread the virus to others. You can follow up with a PCR test as they pick up the infection sooner and with more accuracy.

Q: For those who are looking for peace of mind during this time, would you recommend weekly testing for COVID?

Dr. Madad: Regardless of vaccination status, getting tested routinely is a great way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 — especially if you are in close contact with people often. At-home testing is also a great option for those looking to avoid long lines and longer result return times.

Want to get in touch with Dr. Madad? Reach her HERE.