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Tennessee expert 'cautiously optimistic' COVID could become endemic in mid-February

Tennessee expert 'cautiously optimistic' COVID could become endemic in mid-February. PHOTO: Dr. William Schaffner-VUMC FOX 17 News Nashville
Tennessee expert 'cautiously optimistic' COVID could become endemic in mid-February. PHOTO: Dr. William Schaffner-VUMC FOX 17 News Nashville
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NASHVILLE, Tenn.--An infectious disease expert in Tennessee says he is "cautiously optimistic" the current wave of COVID-19 infections from Omicron could transition from being pandemic to being endemic by the middle of February.

Dr. William Schaffner is an infectious disease expert with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and is also the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). FOX 17 News spoke with Dr. Schaffner on the rising number of infections and hospitalizations among the vaccinated and unvaccinated reported from some Tennessee hospitals.

Hospitalization totals reported by the Williamson County Medical Center last week showed 42% of those hospitalized were fully vaccinated, though the report did not specify if those vaccinated had received a booster shot.

RELATED: Boosters urged by Tennessee hospital as 42% of those hospitalized at facility vaccinated

Dr. Schaffner says while the majority of individuals being hospitalized are unvaccinated, serious disease can occur among the vaccinated, especially those who are immunocompromised. "There's also some older people who have a number of other underlying illnesses, they're particularly frail and people with a variety of underlying illnesses such as cancer and people who are receiving chemotherapy...they also may have breakthrough infections," Dr. Schaffner said.

While the omicron variant has been found to be more transmissible regardless of vaccination status, Dr. Schaffner says those unvaccinated still are at risk for greater disease. Among the vaccinated, underlying conditions and the number of conditions can also play a role in how sick an individual becomes. Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Schaffner says "If you have one underlying condition you have an increased risk of requiring hospitalization if you encounter the virus," Dr. Schaffner says. "If you have two, your risk goes up. If you have three underlying conditions or more, obviously your risk continues to increase. So, the more underlying illnesses you have, the more frail you are, the more likely when you encounter the virus you're going to become more seriously ill."


Dr. Schaffner explains boosters play a pivotal role in continuing your ability to fight against the disease. "What the booster does is it reminds the immune system so that it responds then and gives you much more antibody protection and that heightened antibody protection protects all against the variants such as omicron."

The role of booster shots could become an annual recommendation as with influenza vaccines. Dr. Schaffner says while much could change moving forward, the medical community believes as the country transitions from a pandemic phase to an endemic phase -low levels of the virus circulating through our population- another booster shot may be recommended. In fact, vaccine scientists are already working to combine the COVID vaccine with a flu vaccine in one shot.

Dr. Schaffner says he is waiting to see how we come out of the current phase but by mid-February, the U.S. could move to an endemic phase if no new variant emerges. Dr. Schaffner says data showing the peak and plateau of omicron spread in South Africa and some cities in the U.S. indicate we could see spread start to decline by the middle of February. "I have cautious optimism that will happen. Of course, I've been cautiously optimistic twice in the past and then along came delta and then along came omicron," Dr. Schaffner says. "So this is predicated on the notion that there won't be yet another new variant out there that comes to this country."

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