Omicron variant likely to surge in Seattle area as health officials urge booster shots

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. (Public Health — Seattle & King County Photo)

Health officials in King County are anticipating a likely surge of the fast-spreading Omicron COVID-19 variant, said county health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin in a media briefing Wednesday. He urged people to get their booster shots and double down on masking and other measures.

“I think we can assume that Omicron is fairly prevalent right now, although it’s still at relatively low levels compared to Delta,” he said. “Based on what it’s done everywhere else we expect it will increase very rapidly.”

The variant, first identified in South Africa in November, is set to become the dominant variant in several European countries this week.

Early data released Monday from a University of Washington lab that analyzes a large proportion of the state’s COVID-19 tests found Omicron present in more than 10% of virus-positive samples from Dec. 8. More recent samples show a prevalence of about 20%. The data needs to be confirmed by a more thorough analysis.

Duchin anticipates that vaccination will protect against severe disease. But he advises people who have not yet received a booster to get one.

Early data from the United Kingdom suggest that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were roughly 35% effective at preventing symptomatic infection with Omicron but boosting with a third dose bumped that up to 75% effectiveness.

Boosters are in high demand now, but King County has been increasing its supply and delivery of vaccine. The ten county-operated sites have increased vaccination capacity by 60% in the past month.

“The most important things to know about Omicron are that it spreads through the air the same way as Delta, only a whole lot better, and vaccines are the most important thing we can do to reduce our risk,” said Duchin. “But they must be used in combination with other strategies.”

These strategies include the familiar measures of masking, social distancing, getting tested and staying home when sick. “I think this is particularly bad timing to to abandon your precautions around gatherings,” added Duchin.

Such measures are needed to help prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed as flu season approaches and the Delta variant also circulates widely, said Duchin.

“When you have so many people getting infected in such a short time, that’s a problem,” Duchin said. “It’s particularly a problem for the healthcare system, but can also be a problem for businesses and others who rely on having certain number of people doing their jobs on a given day.”

The relatively high rate of vaccination in King County may help blunt the effects of a surge, said Duchin. 86% of people 16 and over have completed their vaccination series, and about two-thirds of individuals 65 and over have been boosted. Less than 50% under 50 have yet to receive a booster.

There are some early hints from South Africa that the variant may cause less severe disease, but it’s too early to know for sure.  

“Even a relatively small proportion of seriously ill can rapidly add up to be a large number, and our healthcare system does not have a lot of surge capacity at the moment,” said Duchin.

County health officials are not anticipating implementing any new mandatory measures to reduce community transmission in the near future. “At this point, we can do really well with voluntary compliance,” said Duchin. “But Omicron and Delta and COVID in general are a bit unpredictable.”

He also advises people who have had past COVID-19 infection to also be vaccinated, as such individuals are more susceptible to Omicron compared to Delta. Many of the Omicron cases in South Africa have been in previously-infected people.

Meanwhile, companies are delaying or abandoning return-to-office dates. Meta and Lyft announced Tuesday that they would delay returning to the office, joining Docusign, Google and others. The organizers of January’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, biotech’s biggest annual conference, announced Wednesday they would be going to a virtual-only format. Apple has shut three stores due to COVID-19 cases among staff. 

Duchin urged people who have not gotten their first vaccines to get their shots to protect themselves and the community, and to avoid overwhelming hospitals.

“There’s been a just a very tragic amount of intentional anti-vaccine disinformation that has flooded the internet and various media channels,” Duchin said. “That has a confused a lot of people.”

Duchin added: “The real risk remains to the unvaccinated.”

Duchin also provided an update on an outbreak of COVID-19 among high school wrestlers in Washington state.

  • The outbreak is associated with four high school wrestling tournaments on Dec. 9.
  • More than 80 cases are connected to the outbreak, including wrestlers, coaches, and some family members and spectators.
  • At least three of the cases were caused by the Omicron variant.
  • About 80% of the cases are “fully vaccinated.”
  • Twenty schools have at least one affected person associated with the school. Nine schools have outbreaks of three or more people in the wrestling program.
  • Health officials are aware of one individual who was hospitalized, but that was for overnight only. “All of these people seem to be doing very well,” said Duchin.
  • Health officials said there was low compliance of masking, in some cases, by spectators and wrestlers on the sidelines. Some wrestlers attended practice or competition while symptomatic, and there was a report of a post-tournament celebration without masking. The names of the schools may be released later.

Related: COVID-19 misinformation still featured on Amazon, months after inquiries from lawmakers

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