There have been no confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the area yet, but it’s impossible not to assume it isn’t here, Mobile County Health Department (MCHD) epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree said during an update Thursday, Dec. 23.
Through sequencing, a local laboratory has released a preliminary report stating that one patient has tested positive for the most infectious strain of the illness to date, but nothing has been confirmed, Murphree said.
“The sequencing for it was performed by a local lab and we are working with that lab now confirming this report of Omicron in a Mobile County resident,” she said. “It’s highly likely Omicron is here, it’s just that prior to now, the number of PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests coming in for COVID-19-positive patients was quite low, and so we didn’t have a lot of specimens to perform sequencing on. But as more and more people are getting COVID-19, we’re able to sequence specimens from more and more people.”
MCHD and the state health department are still tracking cases of the virus and a new rise in cases is a concern, Murphree said.
“There has been a doubling of cases reported as compared to seven days ago,” she said. “It’s likely due to the Omicron variant in our county.”
The rate of positive cases per test has also almost doubled in the last week, Murphree said, from 7 percent to 12 percent.
“It’s incredibly concerning and typical of what other areas are seeing with the spread of the Omicron variant,” she said.
MCHD saw the largest recent number of cases on Dec. 23 at 231. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day saw 112 reported cases and 103 reported cases, respectively.
There have been no additional deaths from the disease in the last week, as of Dec. 23, Murphree said, but 28 patients are currently in local hospitals, with six of them being new hospitalizations.
“That seems like a rather low number, but it’s slowly creeping up,” she said. “It’s something we’re concerned about and we’re going to keep an eye on it.”
Dr. Bert Eichold, the county health officer, said during the update Omicron is more contagious than its predecessors, adding that the best defense against it is to receive the vaccine course or a booster shot.
“This is a virus we’re going to be able to deal with,” he said. “The best way to not get seriously sick is to get vaccinated and take a booster shot.”
For those skeptical of the vaccine, Eichold said, the Pfizer version is fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“For those concerned about it being experimental, I’ve taken the vaccine, my wife has taken the vaccine and I’ve taken the booster,” he said.
More than 85 percent of MCHD staffers are fully vaccinated and many have received a booster already, Murphree said. Less than 60 MCHD workers have not received at least one shot.
“Most of us have been fully vaccinated and boosted,” she said.
While area health experts are concerned about the proliferation of the variant, Murphree said they are optimistic about reports the new strain is less severe than the ones that predate it. Despite this optimism, Murphree still believes the area is not ready for another wave of COVID-19, as only about 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. The state’s percentage of vaccine coverage actually dropped once those 5 to 12 years old became eligible. That lags behind the national average, which the CDC says is 61.8 percent for fully vaccinated people.
“We still have too many people in Mobile County not vaccinated,” she said.
The area saw a record number of hospitalizations and deaths earlier this year and the vast majority of those were unvaccinated patients, Murphree said.
“We could have prevented so many deaths if people were vaccinated,” she said. “There were many people who died unnecessarily.”
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