(CNN) — For Americans traveling after Christmas and New Year’s, getting their Covid-19 vaccinations or booster doses as soon as possible is critical to safely avoid serious illness, one health expert told CNN on Saturday.
Amid a surge of cases nationwide fueled by the Omicron coronavirus variant before the holiday season, parts of the country are reporting increased hospitalizations and deaths. And people need to be prepared for a heightened risk of infection during travel by taking preventative measures, according to Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the school of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“If you’ve only gotten two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, even though that officially counts as fully vaccinated, we know that its impact on breakthrough symptomatic illness is close to zero,” Hotez told CNN’s Amara Walker.
The initial two-dose regiment will still protect “better for serious illness,” he said, “but you still need to get boosted, I think, if you want to travel safely.”
Booster shots may take two weeks to provide peak immunity, doctors have said, meaning the sooner one gets vaccinated, the better. Other steps, including wearing a quality mask, can help lower risk of infection.
Millions of Americans who are immunocompromised should delay future travel plans for a few weeks if possible in the hope that the current surge won’t span as long as previous ones, Hotez said.
And due to the infectiousness of Omicron, “even if you’re boosted, you have to face the possibility that you could get symptomatic breakthrough illness going through airports and going on Ubers,” he said.
The US has fully vaccinated nearly 62% of its total population, leaving millions unvaccinated at higher risk for serious illness and death from Covid-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than 31% of those inoculated have received additional doses or boosters.
Even though early research indicates that Omicron may cause less severe illness than the Delta variant, the recently detected strain is highly contagious and threatens to strain health care resources, officials and experts have warned. A hallmark of the season has been the shortage of Covid-19 testing kits — a crucial tool in attempting to assuage the fast-moving virus.
Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said while there’s always a risk to contract the virus while traveling, there are mitigation efforts available.
“So if someone has been exposed in your orbit or in your circle, or has been infected, you don’t have to assume everybody has it. Do continue to do things like wearing masks around people or testing,” Faust told CNN’s Boris Sanchez on Saturday.
And for those traveling, Faust advises to look for “the weak links in the chain.”
“It’s not necessarily the actual airplane itself. It might be the airport line in the bathroom where you need to be extra careful with masks and other mitigation measures,” he said. “And I think depending on your threshold, you have to adjust accordingly.”
Treatment options narrow for Omicron
With millions traveling, Omicron was partially responsible for the Christmas weekend cancellations of about 1,700 flights within, into or out of the US, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.
Airlines, including Delta and United, have said they are experiencing staffing shortages due to Omicron, which became the dominant strain in the US last week as officials announced a new wave of measures to combat the spread.
As for fighting Omicron, currently there is one monoclonal antibody treatment that is still expected to be effective against the strain, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday in a statement.
It is “unlikely” that the treatment known as REGEN-COV or the combined use of bamlanivimab and etesevimab “will retain activity” against Omicron, according to the statement. That means sotrovimab is the sole monoclonal antibody treatment currently available to fight the Omicron variant.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response has moved to halt allocations of the other monoclonal antibody therapies and that 300,000 additional doses of sotrovimab will be available in January, the agency said.
The US is also experiencing a shortage of the monoclonal antibody treatment Evusheld, which will only be given to people who have compromised immune systems and do not have active Covid-19 infections. Federal officials purchased up to 700,000 doses of the preventative drug — enough to help only one-tenth of the estimated seven million people who are eligible.
Minorities are still at higher risk for Covid-19’s most severe outcomes
From the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, racial and ethnic minority communities have been bearing the brunt of Covid-19 — whether through illness, deaths or economic struggles.
Nearly two years on, some of those disparities remain.
Racial and ethnic minority groups who had other health conditions and contracted Covid-19 were more likely to have a higher in-hospital mortality rate than White patients, according to a study published Thursday in JAMA Health Forum.
The study, which tracked data from more than 14 million hospitalizations in Medicare beneficiaries between January 2019 and February 2021, found a decline in non-Covid-19-related hospitalizations and an increase in Covid-19-related hospitalizations across the board.
But “the average rate of Black and Hispanic Covid-19 hospitalizations exceeded that of White beneficiaries through February 2021,” researchers wrote.
“Beneficiaries hospitalized with Covid-19 were more likely to be from racial and ethnic minority groups relative to hospitalized beneficiaries prepandemic,” they also noted.
The “persistently widened disparity” in non-Covid-19 mortality may be connected to factors including differences in access to Covid-19 testing, access to care and changes in case mix and care quality related to pandemic factors, the authors wrote.
For Covid-19 hospitalizations, mortality was not “significantly different” for Black patients when compared to White patients, but mortality rose 3.5 percentage points in Hispanic patients.
The researchers suggested that a “spillover effect,” which increased Covid-19 hospitalizations, may have shifted the distribution of hospital resources “potentially widening racial and ethnic disparities in outcomes.”
For non-Covid-19-related hospitalizations, mortality in Black patients rose nearly 0.5 percentage points more than in White patients, “a 17.5% increase over the prepandemic mortality rate among Black inpatients.”