As Omicron Cases Surge, Allegheny County Officials Encourage Mitigation Measures — Again

The best way to protect yourself and others should sound familiar – get vaccinated, wear a properly fitting mask, keep a safe social distance from others and stay home if you feel sick.
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If it suddenly feels like everyone you know has COVID-19, you’re not alone. 

At a virtual press briefing Wednesday afternoon, Allegheny County Health Department officials discussed the rapid spread of the omicron variant — and stressed the importance of compassion and patience as we navigate through a new surge.

“Omicron is definitely here. This highly transmissible variant has caused dramatic rises in the number of cases here in Allegheny County, around the country and around the world,” said Health Department Director Debra Bogen. In its now-weekly data briefing Tuesday, the department reported a whopping 13,350 new cases from Dec. 26-Jan. 1, averaging roughly 2,000 new cases each day. Those numbers, officials say, are higher than ever. The seven-day positivity rate, too, is at an all-time high — 30%.

“This surge is breaking all kinds of local, national and international records,” Bogen added.

Evidence has shown that the omicron variant, which officials say is almost certainly responsible for the dramatic rise in positive cases, isn’t as deadly as the delta variant. While that’s good news, Bogen also explained that it doesn’t necessarily mean the health care system will be spared from strain as cases continue to rise.

Higher case numbers will naturally mean higher hospitalization numbers even if the variant isn’t as intense, simply because more people are getting infected. Bogen said that if, hypothetically, 20 in 1,000 delta variant cases are hospitalized and there are about 3,000 cases per week, one would expect 60 hospitalizations. With omicron, if a hypothetical 7in 1,000 cases required hospitalization, but there were 12,000 cases per week, 84 people would be hospitalized — a lower proportion than the delta cases, but a higher overall figure.

“That’s why it is so important to vigilantly adhere to mitigation guidance,” Bogen said, once again stressing the importance of vaccination, proper masking and social distancing in indoor, crowded or public settings. 

Even though vaccinated people are contracting the virus — 46% of cases from last week were in the unvaccinated — getting the jab can help prevent you from getting seriously ill or dying, which Bogen said is what vaccines are ultimately designed to do.

According to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, close to 800,000 county residents are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received both doses of a two-dose inoculation or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson jab. About 318,000 have received a booster dose, and that number continues to grow. 

Nevertheless, Bogen warned that the next few weeks will be difficult, and things will likely get worse before they get better.

Many businesses have already been forced to close temporarily due to COVID-related staffing shortages — including multiple restaurants and the Carnegie Science Center, which will close for a few days next week. Both Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County Port Authority have been impacted by those shortages, too. Schools have been pushed online for this week, and between 100 and 200 bus drivers are out sick. Over the weekend, one operator died from COVID-related complications.

Because of how many cases are coming in, Bogen also said that they’ll only be contacting the most vulnerable populations, including those older than 65, about contact tracing and exposure alerts. 

She stressed the importance of acting with kindness and avoiding “compassion fatigue” as the county — and the rest of the world — weathers the surge.

“When you have spent nearly two years concerned for your friends and family, when you have increased the amount of care you provide to children and others, when you wake up and face new complications and setbacks that seem to push back the end of the pandemic, all while trying to protect your own health, you likely feel burnt out,” she said. “It may be harder to feel concerned for others — family, friends, and neighbors and strangers — but they still deserve our compassion.” 

There’s hope, too, that the omicron variant won’t stick around for long.

“While it’s been quick coming in, we hope it’s quick going out,” Fitzgerald said.

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