RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – State Health and Human Services Sec. Dr. Mandy Cohen said Wednesday she’s happy to see the initial data from Pfizer on its booster shot giving protection against the Omicron variant, as scientists try to learn more about the variant’s impacts.
In an interview, Cohen talked about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in North Carolina and her decision to leave her position as secretary at the end of this month after five years.
“If folks are fully vaccinated and they get their booster, it has ongoing protection. It’s what we’ve been saying. So, it’s good to see that confirmed in the data and the science,” she said. “I think either the Moderna or the Pfizer, one of the mRNA vaccines, is what I would choose for a booster. There is some limited evidence that that has a better immune reaction.”
While the omicron variant has not been detected yet in North Carolina, it has emerged when the state is already seeing COVID-19 cases rise, with Cohen noting they’d increased more than 70 percent this week compared to last week.
“Do you think we’re at the beginning of another surge or do you think this may be temporary?” she was asked.
“Well, I think it’s too early to tell. I do think that we have a lot of risk factors going into the next number of weeks,” she said noting the cold weather and holiday gatherings. “The good news is that we have so many more tools, vaccines being our strongest tool. But, also wearing masks.”
She said initial evidence shows the omicron variant spreads more easily than previous variants but potentially does not cause as severe disease.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re mandated or not, get the vaccine to protect yourselves and everyone around you,” she said. “As we go into winter and the fact that this is a winter virus, that we’re gathering at the holidays, I think we need to be vigilant so we don’t overwhelm our hospitals.”
On stepping down and what’s next at DHHS
Cohen announced last week she’s resigning from her position as secretary at the end of this month.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has already chosen Kody Kinsley to replace her. He currently serves as chief deputy secretary for health in DHHS and has been leading COVID operations.
“It’s been a hard time. This has certainly been the hardest thing I have done in my professional career. I have learned so much, and I think I have a lot to bring to what is next to me professionally, a lot of lessons learned,” she said. “I’m looking at a range of opportunities. I do want to say that my family and I have fallen in love with North Carolina. So, I hope whatever my next step will be will keep me here.”
She made clear that she is not leaving to run for public office. There were reports earlier this year that Democrats were attempting to recruit her to run for North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat.
“I don’t know that there was a recruitment effort for me to run for Senate. What it signals for me that folks even asked that question is that they saw leadership, that they saw I was able to connect with people in North Carolina,” she said. “I’m grateful for this opportunity to have led at such a historic moment for North Carolina. I don’t know if elected office in the future will be something I do.”
On Tuesday, she faced a series of questions from state lawmakers about the Cooper administration’s handling of the pandemic, including why North Carolina is still under a state of emergency and the process state officials undertook to shut down businesses and reopen them.
“The pandemic was politicized. Do I think my job was? No. I think my job was to focus on the science and the data, that’s what I did,” she said.
Cohen said while not ruling anything out entirely, she does not think it’s likely the state would need to implement closures or restrictions as the new variant emerges.
“More broadly, whenever we have the next pandemic, do you believe that has proven to be an effective public health strategy? Should we ever do that again?” we asked
She said, “So, look, we needed to do it when we didn’t have any tools to fight this pandemic. As we built up more tools (vaccines, testing, PPE, treatment), then we can use those tools and substitute them for the policy of staying at home.”
Her successor at the department will enter the role as the agency faces challenges beyond the pandemic.
The state and the nation saw a record number of drug overdose deaths from April 2020 to April 2021, largely fueled by the opioid crisis. Cohen said mental health services will have to be key as well given how many people have been impacted by the pandemic.
Kinsley will also take over secretary as Republicans in the legislature have agreed to form a committee to consider improving healthcare access, including whether to expand Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands more low-income people.
Cohen said, “I think it’s absolutely critical that this group of lawmakers moves forward and makes progress. I think it hurt us going into the pandemic that we hadn’t expanded Medicaid. We are leaving billions of dollars on the sidelines that could be helping North Carolinians right now.”