COVID cases in Okanogan County remain low compared with the surge a couple of months ago, but public health officials are warily tracking the Omicron variant, which is spreading so rapidly that it’s become the dominant strain in the country.
As of Dec. 21, Washington had recorded 400 cases of the Omicron variant, but Omicron hasn’t overtaken the Delta variant here yet, state Epidemiologist for Communicable Diseases Scott Lindquist said at a news conference on Tuesday (Dec. 21). It’s too early to say whether Omicron is likely to cause more hospitalizations or death, he said.
Public health experts need a wider sample to understand the severity of Omicron. Variants are detected through genetic sequencing, which is conducted on a portion of all cases. Thus far, Omicron seems to be causing milder disease and fewer hospitalizations, but there isn’t enough information yet, Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah said at the news conference.
Since the variant appears to be more contagious and, as larger numbers of people become infected, it’s expected that a proportion will have more severe disease and require hospitalization, Shah said. “The pandemic is far from over. Omicron is the latest reminder,” he said.
State health officials remain especially concerned about COVID outbreaks caused by close contact, especially indoors. A COVID outbreak connected with high school wrestling matches has now infected more than 350 people, Lindquist said.
Washington’s health care system remains stressed, with staffing shortages in hospitals and rehab facilities, Shah said. Flu cases were extremely low last year, most likely because so many people were staying home and wearing a mask. But flu has started to crop up across the state, Lindquist said.
Vaccines and tests
Compared to one year ago, health care providers and the public have many more tools to combat the coronavirus, including vaccines for everyone age 5 and above and booster shots that strengthen protection from the vaccines, Shah said.
Washington state has a high vaccination rate overall, with 75.6% of the population fully vaccinated. But the number of people in Okanogan County who’ve been vaccinated is just 47%.
Vaccines provide broader and longer-lasting protection than antibodies from getting sick with COVID, Shah said. Getting COVID also poses the risk of severe disease because the immune system won’t recognize the virus, he said.
Health officials recommend COVID vaccines for everyone and stress the importance of a booster for those 16 and older, six months after the second Moderna or Pfizer shot, and two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot.
But Okanogan County is ahead of other areas in significant ways. People in many parts of the state are struggling to find an appointment for a booster, but vaccines – whether for a first, second or third dose – are available at multiple venues throughout the county several days a week. Go to https://okanogancountycovid19.org/covid-19-vaccine.
And, while at-home COVID tests are recommended to keep people and their friends and family safe – particularly in the holiday season – many people in Washington have been frustrated by the scarcity of tests. Okanogan County residents can get eight free tests through a quick on-line sign-up process. To order the tests, go to https://sayyescovidhometest.org.
The advice people have been hearing for more than a year – to wear a mask; keep your distance from others; avoid crowded spaces; and wash your hands – remains an important part of staying healthy and protecting the community, Shah said. If you feel sick, you should get tested and stay home, he said.
Although everyone hoped this holiday season would be more “normal” than last year, people can socialize and go to music and athletic events by making educated decisions based on their health risks and those of their family and friends, Shah said. “That’s how you live safely with COVID. You do your best,” he said.
COVID in the county
Okanogan County recorded 32 COVID cases in the week ending Dec. 19, compared to 35 last week. Three of the cases were in Twisp.