Officials say reliable data on its severity is limited
Health care professionals are gearing up as the highly transmittable Omicron variant is starting to spread in Platte County.
Aaron Smullin, public information officer with the Platte County Health Department, confirmed the health department has been receiving reports that the Omicron mutation–first identified in South Africa and Botswana in November-has been detected in the wastewater in Platte County.
Presently, the local health department has not received any sort of breakdown of cases that officially show just how many positive cases of Omicron there are in the community. A lag in genotyping at the state lab could be a reason why, but officials are seeing an increase in the number of people who want to get tested, health officials said last week.
Health experts are still learning specifics about the Omicron variant, but some evidence suggests it could spread more easily than the original virus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control is working hand-in-hand with state and local health officials to gather data to determine the severity of illness the mutation causes and how effective vaccines work against it.
The Omicron has 50 mutations, which prompted the World Health Organization to identify it as a “variant of concern” in November. The Omicron variant now accounts for an estimated 58.6% percent of new COVID-19 infections in the United States, according to the CDC.
With new infections of the Omicron variant rising steeply in the United States, health experts say the increase in infections is likely due to the variant’s ability to “evade immunity” built up from past infection or vaccination and an “increased transmissibility.”
“At present, early data suggests Omicron infection might be less severe than infection with prior variants; however, reliable data on clinical severity remains limited,” said Smullin. “We’re still working to learn more about Omicron.”
In the meantime, Platte County health officials are recommending that everyone wear a face covering while in public indoor settings, regardless of their vaccination status. Cloth masks are still suitable, as local health experts have not gone so far as to recommend upgrading to a medical mask.
In Platte County, the recent seven-day average infection rate is 308 cases per 100,000 residents, Smullin said on Wednesday, Dec. 29. That’s lower than the 432 new infections per 100,000 residents last year at this time. Yet with so much still unknown about the Omicron variant, health experts indicate the “winter surge” may get worse before it gets better.
“With the holiday season comes gatherings and travel,” Smullin said last week. “Because of this, case counts are likely to continue to increase. With the increase of cases, hospitals are very full and patients are experiencing delays in care.”
Dr. Ginny Boos, PhD and director of infectious diseases at Saint Luke’s Health System, said there are 165 COVID-positive patients actively being cared for at the Saint Luke’s Health System, where cases have been steadily increasing over the past few weeks.
“Continued high positivity rates are anticipated for at least the next 2-3 weeks,” said Boos.
While it is estimated the Omicron variant accounts for a majority of new infections in the United States, local hospitals confirm they do not know what variant their patients have when they care for them.
“Genome sequencing for the Omicron variant is done at the state lab-typically using wastewater,” confirmed Dr. Boos. There are tools to combat the Omicron variant, which spreads between people that are in close contact, including getting boosted, tested, and wearing a well-fitted mask.
Since the start of the pandemic, 154 people have succumbed to COVID-19 in Platte County.
COVID-19 symptoms vary from person-to-person, and it can be difficult for someone who is experiencing symptoms of illness to identify if it’s COVID or another contagious respiratory illness without testing.
“Influenza A is being experienced in the area,” Boos said Monday.
Regardless, people experiencing symptoms of illness need to stay home and get tested if they develop a sore throat, headache, loss of smell or taste, fatigue, cough, or fever, said Boos.
With COVID-19 cases rising to the highest level nationally, Dr. Boos recommends people who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and who have not been boosted or are unvaccinated, should stay home for five days from exposure, followed by five days of wearing a well-fitted mask. “If possible, get tested on day 5,” Boos added.
People who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 and “have been boosted or completed the mRNA vaccine primary series within the last six months or Johnson & Johnson within the last two months should wear a mask around others for 10 days and get tested on day 5,” said Boos.
Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people who test positive but are showing no signs of illness should isolate for five days and wear a face covering for another five days when in public. While the CDC has reduced the amount of time asymptomatic people should isolate, local health officials are urging people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others from serious illness.
At this time, 46.9 percent of the population in Platte County has initiated the vaccine series, says Smullin. That’s far lower than the 73% of Missourians ages 18 and over that have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Demographic data collected by the Platte County Health Department shows that African Americans remain the lowest vaccinated in Platte County.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a recent Household Pulse Survey (HPS) found that among those unvaccinated about 42% reported they “don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Several other underlying reasons unvaccinated participants age 18 and older did not get the vaccine were concerns about possible side effects, they don’t trust the government, and they don’t believe they need a COVID-19 vaccine.
When compared to those who had received at least one dose of the vaccine, the unvaccinated were younger, much less likely to be married, and had lower levels of education.
State of Emergency expired
Amid the winter surge, Gov. Mike Parson allowed the COVID-19 related State of Emergency to expire on Dec. 31. When Parson issued the initial executive order on March 13, 2020, health experts had little understanding of how rapidly the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 could spread or its severity.
“Over the last 22 months, we have coordinated with local, state, and private partners to mitigate COVID-19 and work towards returning to normalcy,” Parson said Friday. “We all now know how to best fight and prevent serious illness from this virus. The state stands ready to provide assistance and response, but there is no longer a need for a state of emergency.”
Parson said thanks to the effectiveness of the vaccine coupled with mitigating efforts to combat the virus and committed health care professionals, it is no longer necessary for the state of emergency to exist. Parson had previously extended the COVID-19 related state of emergency half a dozen times, with the most recent in August.
Now that it has expired, the Missouri National Guard will be rendered inoperative in COVID-19 related missions.
“The main focus of our state of emergency was to provide regulatory flexibility to support and assist Missourians, health care facilities, and businesses and coordinate a COVID-19 response that saved lives and livelihoods, Parson said. “We encourage all Missourians to consider COVID-19 vaccination and to stay diligent, but we can work together to fight COVID-19 while living our normal lives. It is time to take this final step and move forward as a state.”
On Thursday, Dec. 30, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said nearly $48 million in American Rescue Plan funding has been dedicated for community-based organizations to broaden public health capacity in rural and tribal communities. The investment will address workforce needs associated with the long-term effects of the pandemic and increase the amount of trained health professionals, through training and placement.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of a robust public health workforce to keep Americans safe and healthy, especially in communities that have experienced long-standing health disparities,” said Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services. “This investment is part of our ongoing efforts to address health workforce needs in rural and underserved communities. As we build a healthier nation, we will continue to promote health equity and strengthen rural health.”