Governor Jim Justice and his pandemic advisors raised early alarms of the impact an impending omicron variant surge could have on West Virginians, particularly if younger citizens don’t increase their vaccination rates.
Justice announced that the number of omicron cases in the state jumped from three to 18 this week. Although omicron is not the dominant strain of COVID-19 in West Virginia, Justice and his advisors acknowledged that it was only a matter of time.
“In our last genetic sequencing run, we found about 3.2% of the cases that were tested to be omicron, but if we really isolate it to the immediate seven days before the testing was finished…that number was about 6%,” COVID czar Dr. Clay Marsh said.
He highlighted that omicron was 3% of cases in the U.S. before jumping to 13% and then 76% of all cases in quick succession.
Marsh also warned that omicron seems to be impacting children with greater regularity than previous variants.
“There is a substantial impact on the occurrence in children that are hospitalized, a 35% increase in hospitalizations with children testing positive over the last week. In some places like in Washington, D.C. about half of the children that are going into a hospital actually are testing positive for the omicron variant or for COVID-19, with the presumption that it’s the omicron variant,” he said.
Both Marsh and Justice urged parents and grandparents to seriously look into vaccinating their children, who currently have the lowest vaccination rate of any age group. According to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ COVID-19 dashboard, only 13.7% of all children aged 5-11 have received one dose of the vaccine. Looking at 12 to 15-year-olds, the rate of at least one shot jumps to 43.5%, less than half of 87.9% rate for those 71 and older.
Joint Interagency Task Force Director James Hoyer continued to focus on rising hospitalization rates. He cited Tuesday’s admission of 95 new patients to West Virginia hospitals, far above the 60 hospital admissions the task force considers to be the threshold for concern. That number was up from 75 new admissions on Monday.
Hoyer stressed the importance of vaccination as the key tool against COVID-19, noting the limitations both in efficacy and access to antibody and newer antiviral treatments.
“As Dr. Marsh pointed out, there are some new antivirals coming out. We still have the antibodies, but they are both nationally in short supply and are not going to be largely available. The antivirals have significant restrictions on who can use those, as well as the antibodies are going to have less impact on the omicron variant,” he said.
Hoyer praised ever-increasing vaccination rates among older West Virginians – those over 50 years of age – but cited a significant drop in the state’s average age of death as cause for concern.
“That is attributed to the work that we’ve done with our older population, but unfortunately also with omicron it’s now going to be impacted by the fact that it is infecting and having a greater impact on a younger population,” he said.