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Omicron Variant Detected In W.Va., Rapid Spread Expected

Clay Marsh.jpg
WV Governor's Office
West Virginia's Coronavirus Czar Clay Marsh speaks at a virtual press briefing with Gov. Jim Justice on Oct. 23, 2020.

State officials announced Thursday that the first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in West Virginia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted state officials of the first case. The CDC did not say where in the state the case was or any details about the person infected, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. State officials said they will release that information as they receive it.

“We knew it was coming, did we not? I mean it's running across this entire country. In fact, it's running across the whole globe,” Gov. Jim Justice said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Jim Hoyer, who leads the state’s coronavirus response, said omicron will begin to spread rapidly throughout the state.

“What we're seeing in the United Kingdom is a doubling every one and a half days of omicron cases. Certainly we will see a significant increase in omicron cases here in the near future,” Hoyer said.

The omicron variant is present in most states.

More research is coming out about the new variant. U.K. researchers say omicron is three times more infectious than the delta variant. The largest real-world study on omicron, out of South Africa, says the variant causes less severe health outcomes than delta. The same study shows chances of reinfection are higher from omicron and that the Pzfier vaccine is less effective against this strain (70 percent protection against hospitalization, 33 percent protection from infection). About 50 percent of West Virginians have been fully vaccinated.

Coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said what’s happening in South Africa, as documented in the study, will not play out the same in West Virginia. He warns that West Virginians are older and more obese. Also, immunity is waning for state residents who received their vaccine doses or were infected earlier in the year.

“The delta variant had been infecting, actively, a number of [South Africans] before omicron. So there was, and is, immune protection from native immunity in that population," Marsh said.

Marsh added that West Virginia's current situation is already troubling. The state never fully recovered from the delta variant’s surge that peaked in the fall.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations hovered below 100 before delta emerged in West Virginia. Hospitalizations peaked at over 1,000 in late September. Since then, hospitalizations have not fallen below 450 and have been gradually rising over the past three weeks. Unvaccinated people make up 81 percent of the state’s current COVID-19 hospital admissions.

“We are looking right in the face of another surge in West Virginia,” Marsh said.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.

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