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With omicron in New Orleans, flu outbreaks reported, officials urge residents to get vaccinated

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Nearly 80% of adults in New Orleans are fully vaccinated, but as the omicron variant circulates, local health officials are urging residents to take precautions by getting COVID-19 booster shots and the flu vaccine.

In addition to dozens of probable omicron variant cases reported in the New Orleans area, Dr. Jennifer Avegno said during a City Council meeting Monday that flu outbreaks have also been reported in the city.

“We've had several flu outbreaks at high schools around the city. We've had them at large college campuses around the country. In a bad year, flu can kill tens of thousands of people, including young, healthy people,” Avegno said.

“Now is the time when our hospitals fill up with flu, pneumonia and other infectious patients. We really can't handle that on top of a potential next wave of COVID. So whatever infectious disease vaccination you haven't had this year, please talk to your doctor about getting it.”

Avegno noted that data on the new variant is still fresh and there’s limited evidence of a surge in cases happening. But she said the data suggest that omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant, which caused an increase in hospitalizations during the summer.

It’s also still unclear whether this variant is more deadly than delta. Suzanne Judd, an epidemiologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham, said during a press conference last week that the variant appears to spread faster. And in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, there is greater concern about cases in kids.

“It’s just four weeks of data, but the fact they’re reporting more pediatric hospitalizations in those between the ages of zero and five, it’s worth noting, and it’s worth being extra cautious to protect our kids,” Judd said.

Right now, only children above the age of 5 are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are still among the last in the nation for COVID-19 shots in adolescents and adults.

But New Orleans is ahead of Louisiana’s vaccination rate.

“We still have some folks that need their first series, particularly our kids,” Avegno said. “Our kids are vulnerable until they are protected and they can spread it to those around them, particularly high risk and elderly. The booster is absolutely critical.”

As to public gatherings like Mardi Gras, which is around the corner, Avegno said it’s too early to tell how the variant could have an impact.

The upcoming holiday is of concern to health officials, including Avegno, but she said case and hospitalization rates have remained low since the end of the fourth surge just before fall.

“So we need to keep it that way,” Avegno said. “We need to make sure we keep up the testing. We keep down the general transmission in the community.”

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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