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COVID-19 Omicron variant poses ‘great concern,’ TSU public health expert says

A Tennessee State University public health expert calls the COVID-19 omicron variant “one of great concern,” and is applauding the U.S. government’s quick response in imposing travel restrictions on people coming in from southern African, where the variant was first detected. The Biden administration is going even further by requiring all Americans entering the U.S. to be tested. 

Dr. Wendelyn Inman, an infectious disease expert and professor and director of the public health program in the College of Health Sciences, says she does not see the need for a shutdown or lockdown, but calls the measures “another layer of protection for the general public until we have a full understanding of the virus.” 

“It could be two or three weeks before we fully know how the new COVID-19 variant is transmitted between people and if it can cause more severe illness than other mutations of the virus,” says Inman, previously the chief of epidemiology for the State of Tennessee. “What we do know is that the symptoms are milder for healthy people and those that are immunized.” 

As of Friday, the U.S. had reported the omicron variant in five states. Minnesota, Colorado, New York and Hawaii confirmed new cases of the variant on Thursday. The first case was reported Wednesday in California. The infected person, a resident of San Francisco, had just returned from a trip to South Africa. 

With the virus already detected in over 25 countries, the U.S. government and other countries are restricting travel in the hope of keeping the virus from spreading. And, Inman and other scientists are urging the public to continue to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to get immunized, continue to wear masks, social distance, and wash hands. 

So far, the COVID-19 vaccines have proved to be highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death, with people who are unvaccinated 10 times more likely to be hospitalized if infected. And vaccine-makers are optimistic the current vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. will provide protection against omicron, too. 

“If you are immunized, it is not going to send you to the hospital or to the morgue,” says Inman, who worries that there are still vaccine skeptics in Tennessee, especially Middle Tennessee. “I am more concerned for people in areas where larger numbers of unimmunized people are working, living, and playing. Most people don’t grasp the concept until a family member or somebody they know dies. No one has to die before we take it seriously.” 

According to the CDC, more than 60 percent of Tennessee residents are fully vaccinated. 

At TSU, the university reports a high vaccination percentage among employees and students. More than 70 percent of full-time faculty and staff, as well as hundreds of students are vaccinated. As of Nov. 8, TSU officials say 74.5 percent, or roughly 920 faculty and staff, have had both vaccination shots. More than 2,300 students have presented proof of vaccination. 

“Tennessee State University has worked diligently to keep infections to a minimum,” says Dr. Curtis Johnson, TSU’s associate vice president and chief of staff. “We continue to enforce the guidelines we have in place to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff, along with our visitors. We are grateful for the cooperation we have received from the TSU family. It is encouraging to see the results of our efforts, and it benefits our communities greatly.” 

For more information on TSU’s COVID-19 protocol, visit https://www.tnstate.edu/nanobio/COVID19.aspx