Massachusetts' first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus was reported this weekend. It comes as the state's pandemic metrics are rising sharply and people are getting ready to travel for the holidays.
The positive test rate has doubled in the last three weeks. More than 1,000 people are hospitalized with COVID — about a third of them fully vaccinated. And we're seeing the number of COVID cases reaching levels we haven't seen since January.
For a closer look at where the pandemic stands in the state, WBUR's Morning Edition was joined now by Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
On how concerned Mass. residents should be about the state of the pandemic
Well, it's true that the cases are really rising, and it's something to be very much aware of when we go about our day-to-day lives. The fortunate thing is that everything that we've been paying attention to thus far still holds — wearing masks when we're in indoor spaces with other people, trying to keep our gathering sizes small. Those are the best things that we could do to protect ourselves from the rising rates of COVID-19.
On the omicron variant
Omicron is something that I've been watching very closely. It's something that I'm concerned about because it shows that the variant can spread quickly as we've seen, especially in South Africa, and it's able to at least partially get around some of our immune defenses. So once it really takes hold in the United States, I imagine that it will be difficult to control.
Now the big outstanding question — but I don't know, and really none of us know yet — is how severe it is. It could be equally severe as delta and as the things that we've been managing so far. It could be less severe, could be more severe. And it'll just be a matter of time before we know that. That's the big question that will really tip the balance between how big of a deal omicron turns out to be.
On whether he expects another spike in cases after the holidays
Yes, I do. Like other coronaviruses and like other respiratory viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is a seasonal respiratory virus, and so it spreads a lot more easily in the wintertime, especially up here in the north. And so, I do expect there to be another spike in cases. And it's just something that we're going to have to weather.
On whether we should be rethinking large holiday gatherings
At this point, I don't think so, but it's something that over the next few weeks, we'll know a lot more about. I do think that there are plenty of ways that we can make holiday gatherings pretty safe. And again, with mainly vaccination as our first line of defense. The second thing that we can do to help keep ourselves safe over the holidays is to take rapid tests before we see people. And those things can really help make sure that we don't bring infection to our large holiday gatherings.
On what concerns him and what gives him optimism
The thing that concerns me the most is just that we have a new variant on our hands and that, as you said, we're 21 months into this pandemic and I, like everyone else, is pretty tired of it. I worry that our reserves for taking these common sense measures against against the spread of SARS-CoV-2 are getting low just because we're we've been dealing with this thing for so long. So my hope is that, you know that we'll be able to fold these things into our day-to-day lives to the extent that we're able.
"I think that the really sort of unsung story of this pandemic is people doing their best to protect themselves and protect one another. And that's what's going to get us through these next months."
And the thing that gives me the most hope is really on two different levels. So first, the science — I think that we've been making advances in the science of SARS-CoV-2 in leaps and bounds. The fact that we have effective vaccines at this point is really amazing. The fact that there are therapeutics coming online and tests that work is really great and these things are buying us a lot of freedoms that we may not have had if we didn't have those scientific advances against the virus.
The last thing is just that I've been really impressed with the resilience and the thoughtfulness of of the community as well. I think it's really easy to see the negative side of people's responses to the pandemic and to see the polarization. But really, when I look at my community — at the people I know, at my family — and really, I think that the big story is just the people are coming together and helping to protect one another, helping to protect their health systems. And I think that the really sort of unsung story of this pandemic is people doing their best to protect themselves and protect one another. And that's what's going to get us through these next months.
This segment aired on December 6, 2021.