Surge in Omicron cases puts damper on holiday festivities

Published 9:23 am Thursday, December 23, 2021

Just when the Delta variant had eased up on the nation, the Omicron variant reared its head right before the Christmas holiday. 

Although people are feeling pandemic fatigue and probably aren’t willing to completely cancel their holiday plans, medical experts are advising people to exercise caution and get tested or vaccinated before any gathering.

“You have to think about who is going to be at your event,” Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, Baptist Memorial Health Care Medical Director for Infectious Disease. “If you have a group of young folks who are vaccinated and boosted, you probably have little to worry about for this gathering. If you have a group of people who might have unvaccinated folks, that’s certainly something you need to be a lot more careful about.”

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He advises masking up if unvaccinated people are present and, if the weather allows, hold your festivities in an outdoor setting to allow for ventilation.

“We need to shift the way we think about this and protect the people in our population,” said Threlkeld. “Preventing cases will help with that. If you don’t have it, you can’t pass it on.”

Omicron has overtaken other coronavirus variants and now accounts for 73% of new COVID infections as of last week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the number of omicron infections had nearly a six-fold increase in just one week.

In much of the country, it’s even higher. Omicron is responsible for an estimated 90% or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. The national rate suggests that more than 650,000 omicron infections occurred in the U.S. last week.

Lafayette County is witnessing a worrying uptick in COVID cases. From Monday, December 13 to Wednesday, December 22, the county has gained 116 new cases averaging 11 cases per day. 

As of Dec. 20, Baptist Memorial Hospital North Mississippi has eight COVID patients with one adult in the intensive care unit. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported only 24 available staffed beds out of 181 beds and four available ICU beds out of 24.

The latest data reports say that the Omicron variant is twice as contagious as the Delta variant. 

“It’s why the numbers have just skyrocketed in most countries we’ve seen it in,” said Threlkeld. “Most notably South Africa, then into Europe and finally here into the U.S. This virus also takes us back in time and eliminates the immunity we had from natural infection and vaccines.”

However Omicron, is not as deadly as the Delta variant. This is reflected in the low number of Omicron-related hospitalizations and deaths. Lafayette County has not reported any COVID deaths or LTC facility outbreaks in the past four weeks.

According to Mayor Robyn Tannehill, Baptist has been ranging from six to 12 COVID patients per day for the past two weeks. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 18, 87% of COVID hospitalizations were unvaccinated.

“Although we have seen an increase in positive case numbers in Lafayette County, it’s not translating to people going to the hospital,” said Tannehill during a regular Board of Alderman meeting.

She said they are encouraged by how well the hospital is doing, but the community should brace for a surge in infections pretty soon. Holiday gatherings, the cold weather and COVID testing for flights will catch more people who have very mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

Much about the omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.

In South Africa, data shows younger people were more heavily infected and more children under the age of five were hospitalized for the Omicron variant.

“It could be that Omicron is just more dangerous for people who are not yet immune and maybe not as dangerous for people who are immune, either from natural infection or vaccination,” said Threlkeld. “Only time will tell.”

As of Dec. 22, MSDH has reported 873 more cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi, six deaths, and 56 ongoing outbreaks in long-term care facilities. The state has a total of 525,502 cases and 10,393 deaths, and 1,437,475 persons have been fully vaccinated.

Lafayette County has gained 40 new cases of COVID-19. There have been no reports of COVID-19 deaths or LTC facility outbreaks. The county now has a total of 9,059 cases, 143 deaths and 202 LTC facility outbreaks.