Could omicron usher in endemic?

Published 7:08 pm Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Local hospitals continue to see record breaking numbers of COVID-19 patients as health officials warn the omicron variant could be pushing society towards a coronavirus endemic.

Reported virus numbers in the state and health district were down slightly this week as the holiday COVID surge appears to wane.

According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), from the period of Monday, Jan. 17 – Monday, Jan. 24, Prince Edward reported 260 new COVID-19 cases. Buckingham reported 210 new cases, and Cumberland County rose by 61 cases. Charlotte reported 142 new cases of the virus over the last week, and Lunenburg was up by 120. No nearby counties reported new COVID-related deaths this week.

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The commonwealth reported a total of 7,155 new coronavirus cases on Monday, Jan. 24, down from 10,842 cases the week prior. The state’s seven-day moving average was also down from 16,917 cases Jan. 17 to 12,020 cases Jan. 24.

On Monday, Piedmont Health District Director Dr. Maria Almond noted while the health district is expecting omicron to peak in the near future, current case numbers may be underreported.

“We are expecting to reach a peak with the omicron surge shortly, but case numbers are currently difficult to interpret with an increase in in-home testing, many of which are not reported; likely lags in processing the high volumes of reported cases; and many persons potentially not testing due to challenges accessing tests or just managing mild symptoms without testing,” Almond said. “What is evident is that right now in the district, many businesses, schools and other employers are feeling the stressful effects of the surge on staffing.”

That pressure continues to be evident in the local health care system as hospitals continue to see record COVID-19 patient numbers.

Monday, Jan. 24, Centra Health was reporting 192 COVID patients out of its Lynchburg, Bedford and Southside hospitals, with 22 of those patients in the ICU, 14 of which were actively being vented.

Masking up, particularly in schools, has continued to be a hot button issue this week after Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order 2 issued Jan. 15. The order essentially nullifies all former school-based mask mandates and allows parents to decide whether their child masks up at public or private school.

On Friday, Jan. 21, Youngkin announced updated guidelines for parents, educators and schools per Executive Order 2.

The guidelines, developed by VDH and the Virginia Department of Education, are redesigned around Youngkin’s key principles of parental rights, keeping kids in the classroom five days a week and keeping children safe and healthy.

According to a release from the Office of Governor Youngkin, the guidelines:

Emphasize alternative mitigation measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including vaccination, distancing and outbreak awareness.

Provide a clear decision tree for parents to review when trying to determine how to keep and return children to the classroom.

Strongly encourage test-to-stay and other strategies to keep and return kids to the classroom as quickly as possible.

Give schools practicable flexibility on contact tracing, distancing and other strategies.

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents,” Youngkin stated in the release. “Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process.”

On Monday, Almond highlighted the difficulties various businesses and organizations have dealt with as a result of the omicron surge.

Almond said despite staffing issues and other challenges, employers still remain under the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) regulations which require employers to follow CDC isolation guidance if any worker becomes infected with COVID-19. Employers are also required to report to the health department and DOLI when within a 14-day period there are two or more confirmed cases of the virus among employees.

“Because we are still in a period of high transmission, all employers are also required to have their employees wear face coverings or surgical masks while indoors,” Almond said. “Federal law requires people to wear a mask on any form of public transportation, including school buses.”

Almond said at this time, VDH is recommending all persons wear the best fitting and highest quality face mask available to them when in public settings.

“Masks work; and high quality respirators work best — N95, KN95 and KF94,” she added.

“This is not the time to let down our guard. Our hospital system still needs our vigilance,” Almond noted. “Our neighbors need our diligent attention to protective behaviors. Our youngest children who cannot yet be vaccinated depend on us to protect them.”

As the omicron surge begins to weaken, many have wondered if the variant’s higher rate of infection but lower rate of severe illness could help to bring the community closer to herd immunity.

On Monday, Almond said omicron may potentially be hurling us toward an endemic state in which COVID becomes a more stable, predictable disease.

“But (an) endemic is not necessarily mild,” she warned, “And that moment of stability is not now. While eventually a significant proportion of our population will likely be infected with the omicron variant, we do not yet know how long that immunity will last, and we cannot predict the future of other possible variants. We must continue to ensure that we vaccinate as much of our population as possible to reduce the possible sources of a new variant and to continue to bolster our current levels of immunity.

“Vaccinations continue to work to reduce severe disease. Omicron is extremely good at evading our defenses, but while even the vaccinated may become infected, it is clear that it is a different disease course when vaccinated. The vaccinated and particularly those up-to-date with a booster generally experience a milder course and many fewer hospitalizations. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.”

The Piedmont Health District continues to slowly increase its number of vaccinated and boosted individuals.

Vaccination rates in each county of the health district, as of Monday, were as follows:

Prince Edward: population fully vaccinated: 44.1%, population with booster shot: 20.5%

Buckingham: population fully vaccinated: 51.8%, population with booster shot: 21.9%

Cumberland: population fully vaccinated: 47.6%, population with booster shot: 18.7%

Charlotte: population fully vaccinated: 51.4%, population with booster shot: 21%

Lunenburg: population fully vaccinated: 51.6%, population with booster shot: 19.8%