Dr. Brian Weis, Chief Medical Officer of Northwest Texas Healthcare System, spoke about the state of COVID-19 in Amarillo, the new variants, and the spread of vaccine misinformation that has spread across social media.
In Amarillo’s latest public health report for COVID-19, there were 414 new cases and one new death from COVID-19, bringing the current active cases for the community to 1,577. In Amarillo, according to the report, there are 21 ongoing hospitalizations for COVID-19, including three in intensive care, and 67% of hospitalized patients are not vaccinated. In total, there have been 1,319 deaths from COVID-19, and as of August 2021, 81% of deaths have been unvaccinated individuals.
Weis said that in the final weeks of 2022, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) took the greatest toll on Amarillo’s health care system, but COVID-19 has been an ongoing concern that is still affecting Texas Panhandle residents .
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects XBB.15 to be the predominant virus entering the new year. Its latest report says 43% of new cases in the US are the new variant. XBB.1.5, an Omicron variant, is currently the most transmissible variant. It is a variant of XBB, first detected in October, and a combination of two other subvariants of Omicron.
Current studies suggest that the current variant is more immune than previous strains of COVID-19, suggesting that vaccines and natural immunity may not be as effective against the infection. However, the vaccine will most likely prevent serious illness and hospitalization due to its effects. Just like any previous mutation, this variant is seen as more rapidly transmissible among the population.
“Right now we are not getting more than 3 to 5 percent of our daily respiratory panel tests as positive for COVID-19,” Weis said.
He said COVID-19 had been a constant but low presence at his hospital, but he is seeing fewer people need critical care for the virus. She said most of the cases the hospital is seeing are omicrons and, up to this point, none have been the latest XBB.1.5 variant.
Weis said he was concerned about reports that the new variant is very resistant to natural immunity. He said at this point that COVID-19 had been reduced to a minor hospitalization in the area and that the impact of the new variant with its immune evasiveness could change the scenario a lot.
When asked about public concerns about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, Weis said he hasn’t seen any data or issues in the area that suggest there is a safety issue with the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There have been no deaths that I know of in my hospital from vaccine reactions,” Weis said. “Of course, we always worry about people having an anaphylactic reaction to a vaccine, but it’s no different if people eat the wrong food or get stung by a bee. You will always have those individuals who will make their immune system respond to the introduction of a vaccine or those similar interactions.
The news and related conversations escalated after teams and the public were stunned when Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during a game in Cincinnati. And some of those conversations were about heart problems and vaccines. When asked about the danger of long-term heart problems and the spread of misinformation circulating about athletes who die suddenly in connection with the vaccine, Weis expressed frustration at the speculated incidents with no real data to support the vaccines’ cause.
“It’s frustrating because what happened to that Buffalo Bills player is a well-described event that is rare, thankfully. It would appear to be a condition or event known as a commotio cordis.” Wei said. “This may be a phenomenon where a sudden blunt impact to the chest causes sudden death without heart damage. The way it fell, it may have received a blow that delivered the amount of energy that may have caused this.
Speaking about concerns about myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle that can reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood from the vaccine, Weis said that while the initial introduction of the vaccine may cause an incidence of this, he hasn’t seen evidence beyond that it is a transient event that causes no long-term problems in athletes or others given the vaccine.
He said that, like when something is introduced into the body, there is a chance for an interaction, but overall he saw no long-term problems in the vast majority of those who received the vaccine. She said she has seen much greater long-term effects with problems like myocarditis from those who have had to be hospitalized due to a COVID-19 infection.
Weis said concerns that the vaccine has not been fully vetted before being used in the fight against COVID-19 are overblown, given that mRNA has been the subject of extensive research over the past half-century and has been been in the works for the last decade to fight the flu as a way to give a rapid response to the ever-changing flu variants. She said much of that research has been used to answer flu variants with less guesswork about which strain will be predominant.
“While it is true that this is a unique vaccine in which we have used our cells to form the virus protein that stimulates the immune system to fight against COVID-19, it is an intervention in which we provide some representative of an infectious agent to stimulate an immune response,” Weis said.
Weis said he still encourages those who haven’t been vaccinated to get the vaccine and boosters. She also advised people to take standard precautions to reduce infection.
“If people have concerns, they should talk to their doctor to make an informed decision and not rely on social media to make important medical decisions,” Weis said.