COVID-19 cases rising statewide as omicron variant and new treatments are on the way

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Posted at 8:10 PM, Dec 06, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It’s our first COVID-19 update in weeks from Dr. Lisa Piercey and the Tennessee Department of Health, who now say the omicron variant will be here soon.

The variant has not been found in Tennessee at this moment, but Dr. Piercey says it’s already been tracked in two bordering states.

In her media briefing Monday, Dr. Piercey began by addressing what she called a slight increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Most of which were reportedly clusters from the northeast part of the state. She says her staff has come up with multiple theories as to why that region in particular. She says it's not like they have the fewest vaccinated people compared to other parts of the state. Although most of these cases are still largely impacting the unvaccinated population.

It may be too early to tell if this is somehow related to the omicron variant which some say is more transmissible. Some have also speculated that this virus is less severe, which Dr. Piercey says is again only speculation.

“The thing that we’re looking for here is a reduction in hospitalizations and deaths,” Piercey said.

A new FDA-reviewed antiviral pill from pharmaceutical giant Merck promises to do just that. The molnupiravir pill comes as part of a five-day course treatment. You take four pills, twice a day for five days. Studies have shown this can help reduce COVID-related symptoms and lower your risk of hospitalization by at least 30%.

“We know we’re going to be getting 2% of the nation’s supply. That could be as little as a couple of thousand courses. It could be more than that, but we’re doing some contingency planning for the amount that we get,” Piercey said.

The pill could make its debt in Tennessee by next Monday if it receives the Emergency Use Authorization or "EUA." Dr. Piercey predicts that Pfizer’s version of the pill may take until January to arrive in Tennessee.

“The really important point here is that you have to take them early in the course of illness,” Piercey said.

Once you notice symptoms, you need to take the Merck medication no more than five days later and three days for Pfizer. This means testing will become even more important according to Dr. Piercey.

She says it’s common and it’s even been encouraged in the past to wait before getting tested in case your symptoms turn out to be related to something else. This time, Dr. Piercey says it’s better to take extra precautions if you plan on taking the new treatment.

The plan now is to pinpoint a large retailer to help distribute the pills, the same way we did with vaccines. Dr. Piercey says they’ve studied different locations to make sure everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status, can have equal access. That said, they will begin by rationing pills to those at the highest risk of hospitalizations.

“It’s my hope and prayer that this ramps up very quickly and so we don’t have to do this prioritization. Initially, it will be in limited locations and limited on who can get it,” Dr. Piercey said.

She added that we still have monoclonal antibodies in “plentiful supply” across the state. As for protection against COVID-19 and any variant, Dr. Piercey says your best option remains the vaccines.

“What we do know is that vaccination is the absolute best way to protect yourself. Not only from infection but specifically hospitalization and death from any variant,” Piercey said.

TDH will continue monitoring the spread of the omicron variant which has now been found in 17 states around the country. Dr. Piercey says they have been doing routine variant surveillance which means taking a portion of samples in Tennessee and testing for genetic sequencing. They also send samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where they match with known variant samples.