County health director gives insight on omicron vaccines

Sophia Yang, Senior Staff Writer

A Palo Alto High School student prepares to receive one of the initial two doses of Pfizer vaccine. As omicron cases surge, many students are looking to get their third dose of the vaccine, which was made available to everyone over the age of 12. According to Santa Clara County Public Health Director Sara Cody, the need for a third dose is evident. “We are calling the third dose a “booster” dose, perhaps we should think about it as a 3rd dose being needed to complete the primary series.” Cody said. “It’s now pretty clear that two doses were not enough.” (Photo: Daniel Garepis-Holland)

In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Clara County Public Health Director Sara Cody regularly appeared in press conferences  to provide guidance and answer questions regarding COVID-19. Cody was the first U.S. health official to mandate a stay-at-home order at the start of the pandemic. The Paly Voice asked Cody about her thoughts on the omicron variant locally — in schools and in the community. Below are her responses.

Q: Pfizer is planning to manufacture 50 to 100 million doses of a new omicron-specific version of the coronavirus vaccine. Do you anticipate a fourth vaccine being necessary? Do you think booster shots will become routine in the future, similar to flu shots? 

A: As you may know, Israel just recommended a fourth dose for everyone over 60 years and other vulnerable groups. It’s very hard to know what will be recommended in the United States, but I would guess that we’ll ultimately see a recommendation for a fourth dose for at least some people. I feel like it’s too early to know whether we’ll need routine booster shots akin to an annual flu vaccine. It’s certainly possible. The emergence of new variants depends on what’s happening around the world; it will be difficult to continue to chase variants with variant-specific vaccines each time a new variant crops up.

Q. Do you think the vaccine will be effective at targeting other variants as well?

A. I know there is some work underway to develop a vaccine that would be a “pan-coronavirus” vaccine. It would potentially be able to protect us from all sorts of coronaviruses — SARS, MERS, SARS-CoV-2, and coronaviruses that cause the common cold. It would be a very different design than the current vaccines which are SARS-CoV-2 specific. Presumably, if we got that, we wouldn’t have to chase after a new vaccine design every time a variant came along that was significantly different from the last.

Q. Do you foresee Santa Clara County issuing guidelines for schools to return to an online format?

A. As far as schools returning to online, I really hope not!! Two years into the pandemic, with vaccines authorized for everyone over five years, boosters for 12+,  plentiful masks and lots of different types of tests, we’re in a very different place as compared to the spring of 2020. We also know that distance learning had significant harms for many kids, in terms of mental health, social connections, and academic performance. There are still a small number of kids for whom the risks of COVID for them or  household members are still so great that distance learning makes sense. For the the great majority though, a return to distance learning would create much more harm than benefit…The pandemic has required all of us to continually re-balance depending on what the harms and benefits are, and depending on what mitigating factors we have in place. Again, at this point, I can’t think of an argument for returning to online learning for all. I do, however, recognize that some schools have had challenges with staffing since so many got sick with omicron at the same time. But that’s a practical issue, not about an optimal risk/benefit balance.