The United States set a global record this week, recording roughly one million new coronavirus tests in a single day. The current surge in cases is mostly driven by Omicron. The highly contagious variant accounted for about 95% of new cases last week.
And, to top it all off, tests are in short supply, the CDC changed its quarantine guidelines, and some schools have returned to remote learning.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help make sense of the latest deluge of Omicron news. Rasmussen is a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Is Omicron A Less Severe Variant Of COVID-19?
Over the past few weeks, a common refrain has popped up in reports about the Omicron variant of COVID-19: The variant seems to be “less severe” than earlier forms of the virus. But as hospitals fill up with coronavirus patients and infections skyrocket, there’s some context needed to understand what the full impact of a less-severe variant might be.
An important recent discovery sheds light on the severity of the variant, finding that at least in hamsters, Omicron spares the lungs in a way earlier variants have not. This infection appears to be predominantly in the upper respiratory system, largely in the mouth, throat, and windpipe. But even though a fewer percentage of cases may experience severe disease than with earlier variants, the sheer volume may still threaten hospital capacities.
Joining Ira to talk about the severity of the Omicron variant in the body is Dr. Michael Diamond, virologist, and immunologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also joining the conversation to talk about Omicron’s toll on the healthcare system is Dr. Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist and infection prevention expert at the University of Arizona College of Public Health in Phoenix, Arizona.
How Christmas Bird Counts Help Shape Science
This winter marks the 122nd annual Christmas Bird Count, a project of the National Audubon Society, which is self-described as the longest-running community science project in the country. What started as a few dozen volunteers in 1900 has grown to tens of thousands of birders, spreading out in 15-mile circles across the country to count every bird insight on one midwinter day. From this record, scientists can draw insights about everything from the abundance of species to how species’ ranges are shifting from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.
Ira talks to Audubon’s bird count director Geoff LeBaron, and director of quantitative science Nicole Michel about the value of the annual community science project and some of their more joyful winter sightings. Plus, how the data provide clues to which birds are most likely to adapt as human habitat disruption and climate change continue.