by Sally James
As State officials predicted, three cases of the omicron variant were confirmed Dec. 4 in three different counties in Washington. Experts did not reveal details about the travel history of the patients. There was one patient each in Thurston, Pierce, and King counties.
Elsewhere in the nation, patients have been diagnosed with omicron who had no travel history, and infectious disease doctors predict that the new variant is likely already in many communities.
“We knew this day was inevitable, but the good news is we have more tools at our disposal to fight the virus than at any previous point in the pandemic, and we must continue to protect ourselves and our communities,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.
During a press conference last week, Secretary of Health Umair Shah, M.D., M.P.H. and other experts asked the public to continue doing the same prevention steps — getting vaccinated, wearing masks in crowded places, and taking tests — in order to prevent the spread of all variants of COVID-19.
Shah pointed out that science has very few answers about omicron. It is not known yet whether the variant will spread more easily or cause more severe disease than other variants. Surveillance is being done in Seattle and all of the state of Washington on about 10% of samples to check for which variant is present.
The new variant joins dozens of others, including the predominant strain delta that have been identified since the pandemic began in February of 2020. Each variant has slightly different characteristics and is given a label by the World Health Organization. Delta is the predominant strain being reported here in Washington.
“There is still a lot we don’t know about omicron, but we do know that vaccines and other tools are effective against what’s already here,” Shah said in the press briefing.
Both rates of cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have been slightly decreasing in recent weeks, but Shah warned that the overall health systems of the state are still taxed by patients with COVID-19 and by individuals needing care that was delayed during times when hospitals were full. If you add that burden to the normal winter cases of flu and other diseases, it could strain the system this winter.
In a national press conference, White House COVID-19 advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, emphasized that nobody knows yet whether existing vaccines will protect against omicron. But he urged the American public to get vaccinated and seek boosters for their original vaccinations.
Boosters are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for every adult who received any of the three vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson (J&J). For the J&J vaccine, the booster is recommended after two months. For the others, a booster is recommended after six months. The CDC changed its words on this recently, and some people may be confused. Originally, boosters were just called “available” but that wording was changed to “recommended.”
CDC recommends the boosters because a person’s immunity can wane as time passes after their original vaccination.
Several reporters asked questions about shortages of boosters available during the press conference, but Shah and others said they were not aware of shortages. Boosters are widely available at pharmacies and vaccination clinics and many doctor’s offices.
“It is not a time to be panicking, but a time to be concerned,” Shah said. “People are tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired. It is critical to do what we know protects us.”
The state does not know exactly how many people living here have not had COVID-19, and also have not been vaccinated. But Shah said predictions are that about 34% of the population might fall into that category. People who have had COVID-19 are still advised to get vaccinated, as it can strengthen their immunity against future infections.
In other reports, the State issued numbers on COVID-19 cases by different industries in Washington and the racial or ethnic makeup of those cases. The “Health Care and Social Assistance” industry had the largest share of cases.
Black people totaled 35% of the cases in that sector. But the Black population is only estimated to be 21% of those employed in that sector. In that same sector, Asian people were 22% of cases. But Asians were only 14% of those employed.
“As you know, we are fighting a scourge of health inequity,” Shah said in regard to these disparities. “Just because you are in the health industry does not make you immune to inequity.”
One problem for the numbers on race and ethnicity is that for many cases of COVID-19, there is no information available and so the numbers in the chart are only part of the story.
Shah said his office was working with community organizations, including faith organizations, to try to improve on inequity.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on Dec. 6 with the news that three cases of the omicron variant were confirmed in Washington State on Dec. 4.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at SeattleScienceWriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
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