State officials in wait-and-see mode on new COVID-19 variant

Photo Courtesy/WV Governor’s Office Gov. Jim Justice said that the number of people receiving booster COVID-19 shots is far too low.

CHARLESTON — Officials in charges of COVID-19 response in West Virginia are watching and awaiting guidance on a new coronavirus variant making headlines over the weekend and urged the need for vaccinations and booster shots.

“We are not alarmists. We’re going to tell you the facts as best we can,” said Gov. Jim Justice during a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday at the State Capitol Building. “In this situation right here, if we don’t get more and more people vaccinated, there’s more people that are going to die.”

“COVID continues to be very capable of mutating,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar. “Whether this variant turns out to be one that outcompetes the delta variant and becomes the most common variant in the United States or West Virginia we don’t know yet.”

Scientists identified a new COVID-19 variant first found in South Africa. Labeled omicron after a letter in the Greek alphabet, little is known about the new variant. Epidemiologists expect to have data on omicron in the next two weeks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a statement on the omicron variant the day after Thanksgiving. According to the World Health Organization, it’s not clear if omicron is more transmissible or more severe than the delta variant that caused COVID-19 spikes this past summer and continues to cause issues in multiple states, including West Virginia.

President Joe Biden gave public remarks Monday about omicron, urging people to be concerned but not to panic. Biden issued steps to restrict travel into the U.S. from South Africa and countries surrounding South Africa.

“… This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists. And we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions, and speed — not chaos and confusion.”

According to Reuters, doctors in South Africa are only seeing mild cases of the new omicron COVID-19 variant. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the chair of South African Medical Association, was one of the first doctors who identified omicron nearly two weeks ago.

“We have seen a lot of delta patients during the third wave. And this doesn’t fit in the clinical picture,” Coetzee told Reuters. “Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home.”

Cases of omicron have been identified in several countries. While it has not been discovered in the U.S. as of Tuesday, Marsh said the state has the capability to identity omicron should it show up in West Virginia.

“The omicron is a very concerning variant because it has a really large number of mutations,” Marsh said. “There is some concern that our vaccines and our monoclonal antibody treatments might not be as effective … that makes boosters more important. That’s the reason the CDC just came out and said everybody who is over 18-years-old should get booster shots.”

State officials continue to encourage West Virginians to get vaccinated or get their booster shot. Justice said 222,000 vaccinated West Virginians have already received their booster shots, but only 31.8 percent of West Virginians older than 65 have gotten a booster. The booster number drops to 23.9 percent when including fully vaccinated West Virginians older than 50.

“They might as well cock a gun right at their heads,” Justice said. “Those people we know, without any question, their immune systems are tremendously reduced from when they got their second vaccine. Those people are exposed beyond belief. We know if they get (COVID-19), there’s a good chance they’ll die.”

“What it continues to show us is that West Virginians over the age of 50 are not taking the booster dose fast enough,” added James Hoyer, leader of the state joint interagency vaccine task force. “We know that over 95 percent of West Virginians over age 50 make up the bulk of our hospitalizations and the bulk of our deaths … it is still significant.”

According to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, there are 5,800 active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia as of Monday, a 3.2 percent decrease from 5,991 active cases Sunday, but a 28.9 percent increase from 4,501 active cases on Thanksgiving Day.

According to the County Alert System map, 17 counties are in the red for the highest infection rates and percent of virus positivity. Another 22 counties are orange, one step down from red. Only three counties — Gilmer, Tucker, and Pendleton — are great for the lowest percent of positivity.

After dropping to 498 hospitalizations on Thanksgiving Day, hospitalizations shot up to 561 as of Tuesday, with 181 cases in intensive care unit (ICU) beds. There have been 31 deaths reported to the state since Monday’s update and 51 deaths since last Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing.

“We’ve dropped, but not very far,” Justice said. “This surge is taking a major toll, and this surge we’re in right now is not cleaning up the hospitals – it’s still overloading the hospitals.”

COVID-19 vaccinations are up, from 63.4 percent of eligible West Virginians older than 5 receiving at least one shot as of last Wednesday’s briefing to 64.7 percent as of Tuesday’s report. But broken down by age, only 25.2 percent of children between the ages of 5-17 have at least one dose of the approved two-dose Pfizer vaccine.


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