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Anne Arundel public health officer talks omicron, COVID-19 tests, and a future “equilibrium"

The omicron variant is hitting Anne Arundel County hard and stressing the medical system as well as many residents who are having trouble finding tests, worried about themselves and their loved ones, or just wondering what the New Year might hold. Anne Arundel County Public Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman was straightforward in offering his assessment of the situation in an interview Thursday morning with Arundel Journal.

There were 929 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 reported to Anne Arundel County alone, on Tuesday, December 28, compounding a coronavirus surge that has has inundated our hospital system and made it challenging in some cases to simply test for the disease. But beyond the current dramatic statistics, Kalyanaraman sees reasons for encouragement in healthcare’s capability to cope with the pandemic, expecting things to have improved further by this time next year.


“Even this holiday is different than last year,” he noted. “ We’ve got people who are vaccinated--who are much better protected. It’s not enough to keep up with omicron, but we definitely have better testing capacity. It’s really a different landscape. I do believe we’re in a much better space now and we’re moving toward getting into even better position in the future.”

The doctor was not dismissive of the severe challenges the county is going through right now with the current pandemic surge. But when asked to give an overhead, longer-term prognosis of the pandemic he could see things slowly improving.

“We really see this as moving towards a new equilibrium,” he said. “ We talk about an endemic virus--one that is with us that has periodic outbreaks. And we’re moving towards that. We’ll see that move continue over the course of the year. Ultimately we expect that Covid-19 is going to be a feature of cold and flu season.”

He believes the challenge of consigning the coronavirus from being a deadly pandemic to a more common seasonal malady involves confronting at least two related challenges. One--immunity to the virus fades over time. Two- variants are a constant issue with viruses, especially with one so widespread.

“ I think it’ll be spikes from the variants,” he said. “ Its going to be trying to understand when that happens, getting a handle on that, and seeing what this year (2022) holds. It will be better than last year. But I don’t think we’ll reach a point until the rest of the world gets much better vaccinated, where we won’t have the threat of variants always around.”

From Dr. Kalyanaraman’s perspective, as individuals, we may not have total control over how long the pandemic is with us, but we do have new capability to lessen some of the danger it poses.

Local hospitals are definitely filling up though . He expects the current surge peak to be in mid to late January.

“We’re seeing in the hospitals about two thirds of the folks are not vaccinated,” he said.

“Most of the rest of those folks are vaccinated, but not boosted, and have other conditions...that compromise their immune system.”

Earlier this week both Anne Arundel County and Baltimore Washington Medical Center instituted special protocols to help deal with the influx of COVID-19 patients. That largely involves delaying surgeries that would take up hospital beds, changing staffing ratios, reassigning staff, and opening up parts of the hospitals to more patients,

“They’ve had to make adjustments in ways that they operate in order to manage this significantly increased volume,” Kalyanaraman explained. “ I don’t think anybody alive has seen something move this fast. As fast as we thought COVID-19 moved, omicron is even faster.”

With this latest pandemic surge, demand for tests has skyrocketed too, and residents have had to face a reality of few or no rapid tests available. Even multi-day PCR test appointments at CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid were not available until January 5, when checked earlier this week.

The usefulness of having a COVID-19 test done nine days after you are experiencing symptoms seems debatable. Dr. Kalyanaraman said that issue is related to staffing shortages, rather than a lack of PCR tests.

Other locations do have more availability for testing. But drive-up sites in Anne Arundel County have been beset by long lines and waits. A walk-in clinic in Glen Burnie Tuesday required test recipients to wait in a line winding through the narrow interior hallways of an office building for forty five minutes.

The hallways were filled with likely-symptomatic people within a few feet of each other, some with masks pulled under their noses, others with loose masks.

The public health officer indicated he’d heard of similar situations.

“We don’t want to discourage folks from getting tested,” he said. “People just need to do what they need to do for other people as well. Nobody likes the masks, but it’s what we do to keep ourselves and others safe.”

Currently, according to county data, 187,000 county residents, or 32 percent of the population are unvaccinated as the 22nd month of the pandemic approaches. Dr. Kalyanaraman said the current surge--which he thinks is likely mostly due to the omicron variant, though full data isn’t back yet--will have an impact on local hospitals into February.

He said he wasn’t completely sure if the the omicron variant was a less dangerous than previous variants or if those infected had simply built up more of an immune response through vaccines and previous infections.

“It may be a little less severe than Delta,” he said. “But compared to the original COVID-19, it’s not clear if it’s less severe than that. Most of it is kind of complicated by the fact that people who’ve had COVID-19 can get reinfected much more easily with Omicron.”

Although the variants are problematic, mutations are common behavior for viruses. What turned the COVID-19 virus into a pandemic was both its contagiousness and the severity of the disease it causes, which is uncommon, Kalyanaraman said.

He believes 2022 could bring more impactful variants, but there was no way to predict the future definitively. Even so Anne Arundel County’s public health officer, remains confident that we’ll ultimately put the pandemic behind us.

“ It would be naive to think it couldn’t happen again (variants),” he said “We should expect and plan for that and then hope it doesn’t. I definitely see light at the end of the tunnel.”

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