Mass. health officials urging families to get children vaccinated with looming threat of Omicron variant
As originally appearing in The Boston Globe

By Travis Anderson

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Monday released a video message from a Boston physician urging families to get children aged 5 and older vaccinated against COVID-19, two days after DPH confirmed the first known case of the Omicron variant had been detected in the state.

The video message from Dr. Frinny Polanco Walters of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine was posted to DPH’s official Twitter account.

“I speak with parents and families every day,” Walters says in the brief clip. “I tell them, the vaccine is safe and highly effective for this age group. And I encourage them to get the vaccine against COVID-19, just as they get their child vaccinated against the measles.”

The video message followed a widely anticipated but still concerning announcement from DPH on Saturday, when the agency confirmed that a woman in her 20s who lives in Middlesex County had contracted Omicron.

Her case appears to be one of a “mild disease” and she did not require hospitalization, according to the weekend DPH statement.

Asked Monday if any additional Omicron cases had been detected in Massachusetts, a DPH spokesperson said only that the agency would alert a reporter if there were any new developments on the Omicron front.

The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have determined the new mutation of the coronavirus a “variant of concern” and Omicron already has been reported in at least two dozen countries.

And while public health experts had long anticipated the variant’s arrival in Massachusetts, confirmation of the first case underscored the need for swift action to fight the virus overall, most notably through vaccination and booster shots.

Mayor Michelle Wu reiterated that advice Monday in a briefing at Boston City Hall to introduce members of her COVID-19 advisory board.

“The first Omicron case has just been detected in Massachusetts and we are seeing an anticipated holiday surge in COVID cases,” Wu said. “We will continue monitoring the situation extremely closely and follow the science at every turn. … I urge Bostonians to get tested, to get vaccinated, to get boosted, and to work with us to close these gaps so that every person has easy access to the public health tools they need.”

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, also referenced Omicron during the briefing.

“Robust, immunologic, and clinical data are not yet available to provide conclusive evidence of whether Omicron will be more transmissible, cause more severe disease, or circumvent protection conferred by our current vaccines,” Ojikutu said. “But we do have some concerns. There’s epidemiologic data, specifically the significant increase in cases in South Africa, suggesting increased transmissibility.”

Omicron could also affect antibody therapies used to treat people who contract the virus, said Dr. Anne Klibanski, chief executive officer of Mass General Brigham, at a New England Council virtual event Monday.

“We know this particular variant is highly transmissible. It is highly contagious. It will likely take over as the dominant variant in some period of time,” Klibanski said.

She said the unanswered question remains, “what is the actual impact this will have on hospitalizations? We don’t know that yet. We think it may impact the response to antibody therapy. … Here’s the bottom line. What the public needs to do is stay masked, follow precautions, get vaccinated, get boosters.”

Amid all the uncertainty, Dr. Jon Santiago, an ER physician at Boston Medical Center and a former Boston mayoral candidate, was among the experts urging caution over the weekend when the news broke the Omicron had arrived in Massachusetts.

“It’s here,” Santiago tweeted. “But don’t panic. It’s not March 2020. We have the tools & best nurses/techs/docs.” He also urged people to wear masks, get their vaccines and boosters, and get tested.

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