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Jan. 16, 2022

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State hospital officials raise concern about omicron COVID-19 variant, encourage vaccinations

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LONGVIEW — State hospital officials Monday expressed concern about omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, as labs are testing for the strain.

The variant, first identified in South Africa last week, has not been detected in the United States as of Monday afternoon, but health officials said the variant likely is already in the country.

Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the Clinical Virology Laboratories at the University of Washington Medical Center, said his lab has begun running positive cases through a specific test that will pick up on the mutation unique to the omicron variant.

Washington labs are genome sequencing 800 to 1,000 specimens per week, a process that also would identify any omicron variants, he said.

There still are many unknowns, including how transmissible omicron is, if it can cause more severe illness, and how effective vaccines or natural immunity are against it, Dr. Seth Cohen, medical director for Infection Prevention at the University of Washington Medical Center, said during a press briefing Monday.

The variant’s mutations are prompting some concern about “partial immune escape,” but there isn’t yet evidence to support this, Cohen said. Vaccines have offered protection from all variants so far, he said.

Cohen said both molecular tests, also known as PCR tests, and rapid antigen tests should detect the variant.

Along with vaccinations, face masks, distancing and hand washing likely will help slow the spread of the new variant, he said.

Hospital officials encouraged unvaccinated people to get their first dose and booster doses for eligible vaccinated people. Everyone 18 years old and older is eligible for a booster dose two months after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or six months after the second dose of Moderna or Pfizer.

“Until we decrease the proportion of unvaccinated people in the U.S. and around the globe, we will continue to hear about new variants with some frequency every few months,” Cohen said.

Hospital officials said Monday the state has seen an overall decrease in the average COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The state’s daily average number of admissions dropped about 14% from the previous week and 31% from a month ago, said Cassie Sauer, Washington State Hospital Association chief executive officer. However, the number of patients on ventilators increased slightly over the last week, and deaths remain steady, she said.

In Cowlitz County, COVID-19 hospitalizations appear to have increased over the past month, with 14.5 new admissions per 100,000 people from Nov. 14 to Nov. 20, up from about nine per 100,000 from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5.

PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center on Monday reported the highest number of inpatients in the month of November at 19, up from 15 on Wednesday.

“Our inpatient count had been showing a very slight but seemingly steady decline until one week ago,” said Randy Querin, PeaceHealth spokesperson. “This serves as a reminder that the virus continues to circulate in our community and those who are unvaccinated remain at the highest risk of illness requiring hospitalization.”

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