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Where are we in the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo: John Raby | Credit: AP

West Virginia is experiencing a rapid rise in new cases driven by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

As a refresher, Omicron is, by far, the most infectious form of COVID-19 we have experienced. Many are getting infected or reinfected with this variant. Omicron has an exponentially higher transmission rate in a range similar to the measles:

  • Initial Wuhan strain – R0 of approximately 2.5;
  • United Kingdom/Alpha variant – R0 of approximately 4.5;
  • Indian/Delta variant – R0 of approximately 7;
  • Omicron strain – R0 value of approximately 12.

Remember, R0 is the number of other unique people a single person with the virus infects, on average, if there is no immunity in the population. This is an exponential function.

We have seen more new cases in West Virginia, the United States, and the world than ever before driven by Omicron. By a lot.

Before Omicron, the highest number of new cases in a day was around 303,000, and the highest number of cases on average in a seven-day period was approximately 250,000.

Since Omicron, we have had several days of over 1,000,000 new cases and averaged over 800,000 cases per day in a seven-day period.

Before Omicron, our highest number of COVID-infected individuals in U.S. hospitals was 142,000.

Since Omicron, we have seen over 155,000 Americans admitted to U.S. hospitals for treatment.

Before Omicron, we saw few children hospitalized with COVID-19.

Last week, with Omicron, almost 1,000,000 children were newly infected. Let’s put this another way: last week accounted for every one in ten cases of COVID-19 in children since the beginning of the pandemic. More children are in hospital beds in America than at any other time during the pandemic.

As is true during the entire pandemic, West Virginia always has a front-row seat to watch the impact of COVID-19 around the world and in populated parts of the country before we are faced with these same challenges. Over the past three weeks, we have seen Omicron easily outcompete the Delta variant as the overwhelming cause of new infections, now accounting for over 80% of new cases. That number is increasing until Omicron will account for virtually all new cases.

We have learned from other countries like South Africa, U.K., Israel and urban parts of our country that vaccines and boosters are the best way to protect our population from severe consequences of infection by the Omicron variant.

Almost every study that examines the impact of vaccines on hospitalization finds the same result. In data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, full vaccination and boosters reduced the risk of hospitalization in people ages 50-64 by 44-times and for those over 65 years old, by 49-times. Even with two vaccine doses and no booster, the CDC found a 17-times reduced risk of hospitalization.

That is an extraordinary amount of protection.

Israel found that children fully vaccinated and within three months of their last shot had half the risk of contracting COVID-19, and those vaccinated and boosted approached 75% reduced risk when vaccinated.

This data is real-world data and is clear – vaccines and boosters protect our most vulnerable elder Americans and West Virginians and can also protect children from the risk of severe disease, including the Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).

In West Virginia, we are seeing a steep rise in daily cases, with last week’s number of West Virginians newly infected with COVID-19 at 3,833 new daily cases over a seven-day average. Our previous high during the pandemic was 2,000 cases per day on a seven-day rolling average.

We are almost certain to see more hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in the upcoming several weeks than we have ever seen before. This is coming at a time where staffing shortages are growing – both with professionals who are becoming exhausted with the constancy of the impact of the virus and those that are infected themselves.

It is time to “pull the rope in the same direction” and protect our vital healthcare and hospital capacity by getting fully vaccinated with two doses of Pfizer or Moderna and for anyone eligible, by getting boosted.

Even in our most vulnerable over 50-year-old population, only 50.5% of those eligible for the booster dose have received it.

The status of vaccination in our children is even worse. Only 30% of those ages 5-17 have a single vaccine and 25% have two vaccines.

That is way too little investment in the health of our state’s future. We can do better.

When you go out, please consider wearing a high-quality mask for now. A surgical mask, at a minimum, and better, a KN95 mask (preferably with the imprint of GB-2929-2019 on the mask to prove authenticity) or an N95 mask (with NIOSH stamp to prove authenticity). The White House will make 400 million N95 masks available for free at thousands of locations across the country. The masks will be made available later this week or next week at pharmacies and community health centers around the state.

Test yourself at home, or get a free test if you develop cold or sore throat symptoms. Treatments are now available for those in our highest risk groups of hospitalization and death, but we need a positive confirmatory test. The sooner we define a person infected with COVID-19, the faster we can assess for a treatment that will be most effective, if used.

This is a critical time in the pandemic, and as we do in West Virginia, it’s time to take care of one another and demonstrate the beacon that our Mountain State has become for so many.