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Should mask and vaccine mandates be lifted as ‘stealth’ omicron surges overseas?

Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 4:47 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 21, 2022 at 6:21 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - New Orleans has lifted its order requiring people to show proof of vaccination when they visit indoor public places. But with the “stealth” omicron variant, BA.2, surging in parts of the U.S. and overseas, some wonder if the restrictions are being lifted too soon.

In downtown New Orleans, many residents are thrilled at new freedoms after two years of COVID restrictions.

“I don’t think it’s too soon at all. It’s time,” said Ty Lawson.

“Not yet. Too soon. Too many variants out there,” said Jewellyn Nice.

Omicron BA.2, also called “stealth omicron,” has been spreading rapidly, and now accounts for nearly 25% of new cases in the U.S.

“It seems to be doubling on a weekly basis, and locally 15 to 20%, are due to the BA.2 variant,” said Dr. Fred Lopez, with LSU Health Sciences.

Though hospitalizations remain low in the U.S., stealth omicron is considered more transmissible, and hospitalizations are surging in many countries, including Great Britain. The new variant has caused lockdowns in part of China, Japan, and South Korea. The World Health Organization says global COVID cases jumped 8% last week.

“It’s very high in the U.K. I’m English, and what happens there comes here weeks later,” said Jonathan Spencer, an Englishman visiting New Orleans. He is among those expressing surprise at the lifting of restrictions.

‘I’m uncomfortable. I have a health condition, which makes me vulnerable,” he said.

Health experts say it’s still a good idea to get vaccinated. Currently, 53% of Americans have gotten both doses, and 42% have gotten at least one booster. For now, there are no general recommendations to the public to get a second booster, but Dr. Lopez says for some, it’s a good idea.

“If you’re vulnerable, you should continue mitigation efforts to decrease transmission,” he said.

Though stealth omicron is being closely watched, many believe hospitalizations will stay low.

“Given the availability of immunizations, I’d be surprised if we had lockdowns like we had before,” said former city health director Dr. Brobson Lutz.

And as has been the case throughout the pandemic, there are mixed reactions to ever-changing health policies.

“It feels great. We don’t have to put masks on. It’s perfect,” said Lawson.

“I wear a mask though. I feel uncomfortable here,” said Spencer.

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