It’s just a matter of time before the Omicron variant of COVID-19 shows up in Delaware, state officials say.
The virus strain has been found in surrounding states, but has not yet been detected in Delaware, said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health.
And they’ve looked.
The state lab routinely pulls random samples of positive tests to see what type of COVID they are. With all the ballyhoo surrounding Omicron, the lab went back four weeks and pulled extra samples to test and and still found no Omicron, Rattay said.
The Omicron variant, first found in Africa, preys on the unvaccinated, she and others said. It is believed to be highly infectious but not necessarily more dangerous.
Omicron is the latest worry in a 20-month-old pandemic that has seen a surge of cases caused by the Delta variant, a drop in massive testing as more people are vaccinated, and a big increase in cases among the unvaccinated school-aged — and yet no real spread in schools, where a mask mandate is in place.
The state also is seeing more flu circulating, which also threatens to fill hospital beds.
“We’re going to struggle to get out of this pandemic if we don’t get more people vaccinated, fully vaccinated and boosted,” Rattay said.
While Rattay and Gov. John Carney urged people to wear masks indoors to avoid being infected or infecting others, Carney said he was not going to issue a mandate demanding indoor use of masks.
“Sometimes you get more pushback by mandates,” he said Tuesday in a COVID-19 press conference. “There are still limitations to what we can do under the current limited state of emergency declaration.
“So we’re just encouraging folks. I think if we can get the message out that we’re going to see this winter surge as we have in the past that people will don their masks and and help us to prevent the surge from from getting out of control.”
Tuesday’s press conference was a one-off focused on the latest in the coronavirus fight. The state stopped its weekly press conferences in June, when the number of new cases per day was 20.
On Tuesday, the state was having 572.7 new cases a day, based on a seven-day average, and the average of new positive tests was at 8.7%. The state has 296 people hospitalized with COVID, most of them because of the Delta variant, and 34 in critical conditions.
Delaware also passed another milestone with 2,203 people whose deaths are attributed to COVID-19.
Rattay said that existing vaccines provide some level of protection against Omicron.
She said if she was using the same criteria she did in the last surge to point out places with unusually high numbers of cases, the entire state except for Greenville and Bethany Beach would make the list.
The highest number of new cases are coming from mostly western Delaware in Kent and Sussex Counties, correlating to places where vaccination rates 10% or more below the rest of the state, Rattay said.
A.J. Schall Jr., director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, said that the state is doing a fraction of the number of tests that it had been a year ago when case numbers started to rise in the winter surge and there were no widespread vaccination.
When new cases began to decline in summer, the state rate for new positive cases was only 2% of all tests, precisely because more people were being routinely checked.
As weather warmed and vaccinations became more common, few people came in for testing.
Those numbers have been climbing again, he said, and showed a chart that told the tale.
He said many people like or use the rapid testing services, which give results within hours.
Schall urged people to call and make appointments for those tests early in the day. Call for tests later in the day often could not be accommodated, he said.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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