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Long covid and BA.2: The latest on the pandemic, more than two years in

New Hanover County Epidemiologist Ian Appling
Kelly Kenoyer
New Hanover County Epidemiologist Ian Appling

Covid cases are rising in North Carolina and in New Hanover County, and many citizens are worried about the realities of catching even a mild case of the disease. WHQR's Kelly Kenoyer interviewed the county's epidemiologist, Ian Appling, about the current state of the pandemic.

Ian Appling: My name is Ian Appling. And I am the county's Epidemiologist for the New Hanover County pandemic operations team.

Kelly Kenoyer: So I'm very curious about the current state of the pandemic. So can you just run through some numbers and what the risk is for the average person right now?

IA: So yes, we are in most, as most people know, we're past year two of the pandemic. Currently, we are looking at current caseloads in the county or exceeding 176 cases per 100,000 people. So right now we're just below 500 cases for the county.

KK: How does that compare to other points in the pandemic?

IA: At other points in the pandemic, we have had cases where the case count is significantly higher than it is right now. But the one thing that we have to notice that in the past two months, the cases have been significantly lower than they are right now, which is of concern of the pandemic operations team and of the county, that we're trying to mitigate the amount of cases increasing.

KK: So you and I are both wearing masks right now, is that something that you recommend everyone in New Hanover County do?

IA: So I recommend that everybody can make their own decisions when it comes to masking and their own self protection. I personally would love for people to wear masks indoors. But the thing is, is that I do respect the wishes of everybody to make their own decisions about masking indoors.

KK: So I also wanted to get into the current variant that we're dealing with. Could you tell us about this variant and what makes it so transmissible, how it compares to earlier variants? That kind of thing?

IA: Yes, so this variant is also known as the Omicron variant. The sub variant that we are dealing with primarily is the BA.2 variant is considered to be significantly more transmissible than the Delta or Alpha variant, which Alpha is the historical variant that we all know from the beginning. And the the thing is, is that we look at the reproductive rates, so what's known as an R naught ratio, and this R naught ratio, we look at it, it's basically like for every one person, how many other people does is it predicted to infect, and with this one it is for, for every one person infected with the BA.2 subvariant, they're expected to infect 12 other people.

KK: That seems high.

IA: It is considerably higher than the previous historical variants. It definitely- the mutations of this variant, have shown mutagenic properties that are considerably more virologic in nature, and it definitely is able to infect other people at a much higher rate.

KK: So this seems like it's the first major wave since the winter time is are the people who are catching it. Now, the same people who caught it over the winter are these different groups of people.

IA: So these would be different groups of people, because the BA.1, or the original variant of Omicron, that we were seeing, was the one where we saw the major winter spike. Right now what we're seeing is that although it is different, the mutation, the BA.2 sub-variant, it is not considerably more different than the original Omicron variant. Therefore, the people who had it during the wintertime are considerably more protected.

KK: Gotcha. I know that boosters, second boosters are available to a good number of people now, is that something that you recommend people go out and get right now?

IA: Absolutely. And it's for people who are immunocompromised as we all know, and for the populations that are 50 years and older, it is considered to be a, although it's not specifically tuned to the Omicron variant, it is still something that is incredibly important to get because it protects you from the some of the considerable side effects of a severe disease.

Ian Appling interview: Part 2

KK: So there's a lot of discussion lately about long covid, and that it's maybe more probable for people who catch covid than we previously thought. Can you talk about what that looks like? And whether vaccines and boosters have any impact on your risk level if you do catch covid?

IA: So yeah, so the what we're seeing right now is though, about one out of every five people and one out of every four people who are ages 60 years and older, are experiencing what we know now is long covid. They’ll have long covid symptoms, and that includes things like possible heart arrhythmia, cardiac issues or respiratory issues, but also things like fog in your mind, in your thinking. When it's tough to understand certain things or get things out. People have experienced what's known as just a brain fog, if you would.

And with the vaccines and the boosters, what you're doing is, even if you catch covid, it has been shown to significantly protect you from the symptoms of long covid. And if you're not vaccinated or boosted, that you would be at a higher chance of, a higher probability of catching not only covid, but getting the long covid post symptoms.

KK: Your team has focused more recently on trying to reach out to people who are vaccine hesitant. How have those efforts gone?

IA: So those efforts have gone well. I've actually been a part of several of these operations that we go out into the community. It's sometimes certain housing areas and certain groups of people in demographics that have shown hesitancy towards the vaccine.

And one thing that we know is that, that I've actually personally experienced is that a lot of these people want to have their stories heard and their worries heard. And having things explained to them by a professional tends to break the ice, more often than one would think. There is definitely a subgroup of people that are not going to get their vaccine no matter what, no matter how much we try. But the one thing that we definitely try to do is not judge people based off of their decisions to or to not make that vaccine decision for themselves or their family. And just know that they have an ally if they do decide to get that vaccine, that they have somebody there that is available to do it, as we are at the pandemic operation center.

Related: New Hanover County's new 'PanOps' director on vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, and challenges on the horizon

And I think that showing that there is that ally there, that people have a shoulder to lean on, so to speak, when it comes to their concerns that they definitely have shown an openness or more sort of an openness to the possibility of getting vaccinated in the future.

KK: Is there anything you want to touch on that speaks to the human element in the pandemic and where it is today?

IA: The the one thing that if I was to speak to the human element is that we all know somebody that has been affected, whether it be by severe disease or possible death attributed to covid, as we know that our nation hit a milestone of over a million people now that have died due to covid-19 infection. So the one thing that what we need to do as a community, I believe, is that we need to know that number one in every family, there may be people that are less likely to get a vaccine and more likely to get a vaccine, you know, back and forth, et cetera, et cetera. But what we need to do is we need to rely on the good channels and good sources of information to provide the people who are less likely to get a vaccine with proper information and not mis- or disinformation about the vaccine.

KK: Alright, thank you Ian.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.