UNC epidemiologist to lawmakers: NC needs to be prepared for ‘significant winter wave’ of COVID

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – An epidemiologist at UNC-Chapel Hill told state lawmakers Wednesday that North Carolina needs to prepare for the potential of a “significant winter wave” of COVID-19 cases but also said he does not believe it’s “the most likely scenario.”

Dr. Justin Lessler testified before a legislative committee just before officials announced the first case of COVID-19 tied to the omicron variant had been detected in the United States.

“It’s gonna be a little bit before we are likely to see the impact of omicron here,” he said. “When we saw delta, delta was around in detectable numbers for months before we saw those summer delta surges.”

He said scientists are still working to learn more about the new variant, including how transmissible it is and how well vaccines and treatments perform.

“It’s so early. I mean, we’ve known about it for less than a week,” Lessler said. “We know it has the characteristics that are cause for concern. But, we really don’t know exactly how those are going to play out.”

He noted the improving COVID-19 metrics the state has seen since the surge tied to the delta variant earlier this year.

“I am optimistic that those trends are likely to continue. Even if we get a small winter bump, that bump will be small and we’ll see downward trends as we move into the spring,” he said. “It’s very unlikely we’d ever go back to the full shutdowns unless something really substantially changes about the virus.”

He noted the new variant makes predicting the course of the pandemic in the next few months challenging, but added that more people are gaining some degree of protection through vaccinations and from previous infections.

“The rapidly increasing numbers of detection in South Africa and areas around it are concerning. But, these are very early days and we know very little,” said Lessler. “Whether this variant really represents a significant threat remains unclear.”

During a four-hour meeting Wednesday, state lawmakers asked Lessler about the long-term fight against COVID-19.

“Can COVID-19 really be defeated?” asked Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga).

Lessler said he thinks the goals should be to increase immunity in the broader population and get to the point that when cases surge we no longer see a corresponding surge in hospitalizations and deaths with impacts on the ability of hospitals to adequately care for COVID-19 patients and those dealing with other ailments.

“That’s when I start saying we’ve left the pandemic period,” he said.

He added that COVID-19 remains unpredictable, unlike the flu which follows a seasonal pattern.

“We’re getting waves in the summer and waves in the spring and waves in the winter at different times,” he said. “Hopefully by this summer and next winter, hopefully, we’ll sort of settle down.”

John Connaughton, an economist at UNC-Charlotte, spoke about the state’s economic recovery as unemployment has dropped since the initial stay-at-home orders. He said the emergence of the new variant could impact the trajectory of that recovery, but there are far too many things unknown about the variant to be able to predict that.

“I think it’s way too early to make those leaps as to how things are going to affect the economy when we don’t know how severe that disease is going to be. But, what we did see in those (previous) spikes was a slight downturn in the economy,” he said.

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