Year end Q&A: San Benito County Health Officer Dr. George Gellert on Omicron and the flu

SBC Health Officer says vaccinations and booster are critical to fight the more contagious strain of COVID.
Community transmission in USA. Source: The Centers for Disease Control.



With the Delta variant of COVID-19 still present and the new Omicron variant rapidly spreading across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the level of community transmission in the San Benito County is currently at a high of 91%. While Omicron seems to be less virulent than previous strains, the risk of infection is higher, and the county is seeing cases spiking up again.

To help counter the surge in cases, the San Benito County Public Health Services will be having COVID and flu vaccination clinics Monday and Wednesday in January and February (except the holidays) from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m at 351 Tres Pinos Road – Suite C, in Hollister.

On Dec. 31, BenitoLink interviewed County Health Officer Dr. George Gellert on the risk Omicron presents, the outlook for increased flu cases this winter, and the importance of vaccination and booster shots.


BenitoLink: There is information that says between 17% and 35% of people who are infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. Taking into account that information and that about 70% of San Benito County residents are vaccinated, what percent of the county population is really at risk of being hospitalized? 


Gellert: Anyone who is not vaccinated is at risk of being hospitalized. There are levels of risk, and those at greatest risk are those who have had no vaccinations whatsoever. The next tier of risk is those who have had partial vaccinations, where they received just one of the two basic doses. The next tier is those who have been vaccinated but have not been boosted. The booster dose is absolutely critical to fight against the two variants attacking the American people.


In our county, about 91% of the cases are the result of community transmission. What are the concerns there?


Delta is a virulent pathogen that creates an elevated risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and, of course, death. The current variant, Omicron, seems to be less severe. As a result, while we may see a larger number of cases as a whole, there may be less of a risk of hospitalization or death. But because you are casting the net wider, with a much more infectious variant than Delta, you are capturing a greater number of people. 


  1. Is the hospital capable of being overrun at this point of the pandemic, considering the Omicron variant is projected to be the cause of an uptick?


Absolutely yes, that is the case. Every hospital in the United States is at serious risk of being overrun over this next month, simply because the volume of individuals who may be infected is so much greater. There will be more people coming into emergency rooms or requiring hospitalization.  We look at it as a demand that is beyond our capability to provide care for with existing staff and beds.


  1. Have there been any Omicron cases reported in San Benito County?


We have not had any confirmed cases yet. We do know that in surrounding counties, like Santa Cruz, there is Omicron. And there is no question that the likelihood exists in San Benito County. I would not be surprised at all, seeing the whole country is systematically getting infected with Omicron as opposed to Delta.  It should be noted, though, that Delta remains a significant driver in this surge of hospitalizations and deaths. We are not out of Delta yet—the risk has not gone away at all. It will be with us for a while still.


Is there a sense that the pandemic is beginning to lessen because Omicron is less deadly?


That is definitely plausible and would be a desirable transition. But we are not talking about the pandemic being over. Right now, the virus is epidemic. We don’t expect this virus to disappear forever, though. It will just be occurring at a lower level, where the number of people who are getting ill will be causing the kind of disruption we are seeing now.  That may be what we are moving towards, but we will only know with certainty over the coming months.


Is there any pattern that public health is aware of in regards to the residents that are testing positive and/or being hospitalized? 


Very clearly, the overwhelming majority of people who are getting ill, being hospitalized, and dying are those who are unvaccinated.  We are talking a 98%-99% level. When you have the primary doses plus a booster, the protection you have from the antibodies to fight off the infection is much greater. Overwhelmingly, we are seeing the infections with severe clinical courses are among the unvaccinated. The message is, if you have not been vaccinated, start immediately.


  1. Compared to other years, are residents more likely to get the flu this winter? Why do you think that is?


We think that we are going to see a very robust flu season this year. Before, we were more focused on masks, social distancing, and avoiding social gatherings.  All of those are risk factors not just for COVID but for the flu as well. Because we have had some return to normalcy, We really fear, as clinicians, people who are co-infected, who not just have COVID but the flu as well. 


  1. Is there anything else that is important for the residents to know about the status of the county in regards to COVID-19 or the Flu?


The major messaging is to continue your personal protection measures and get your vaccinations and boosters. We are seeing less effectiveness with cloth masks so we suggest the N95 mask instead. Avoid congregate gatherings where you are not sure if people are vaccinated. And we will continue to message that the 30% or so of people in the county who are not vaccinated get vaccinated as soon as possible.  That is the absolute essential core of personal and family protection. Cases among children are skyrocketing and with those who are 20-40 years old, there is no predicting who will get sick enough to end up in the hospital, on a ventilator, or dying.

Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.