Omicron is here.
The latest variant of the coronavirus has shown up in Bell County, and that’s sobering news.
Omicron is even more contagious than the previous variant, delta. And while it doesn’t appear to be quite as deadly as its predecessor, its ability to spread rapidly makes this an urgent concern for our community.
The arrival in Bell County of the omicron variant, just five days before Christmas, could hardly have come at a more inopportune time — especially with the all the traveling, parties and family-related get-togethers associated with this holiday weekend.
Considering last Christmas was a largely subdued affair, with some parts of the country under some form of COVID-19 lockdown, many area residents had no doubt planned to make up for last year’s lull with more shopping, travel and socializing this holiday season.
Now, some of that planned return to pre-pandemic activities is starting to look like a bad idea — or at least a potentially dangerous one.
Early last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 73% of new cases in the previous week had been linked to the omicron variant, and that omicron was outpacing delta in total case numbers nationwide.
So far, Bell County’s numbers haven’t reflected much of a change since omicron’s arrival last week, with COVID cases holding relatively steady and the area’s hospitalization rate for COVID cases hovering around 3%
But local health officials are concerned nevertheless.
Baylor Scott & White announced on Tuesday that the health provider is focusing on sequencing of COVID-19 strains, to identify any positive cases of the delta or omicron variants. This, according to Baylor Scott & White spokesman Deke Jones, allows public health officials to have a better picture of how the coronavirus is spreading locally.
At this point, the best protection against serious illness — from either the delta or omicron variants — is to be fully vaccinated. For those who are already vaccinated, a booster shoot is highly recommended as well.
Granted, vaccinations are not 100% effective, so some “breakthrough infections” are possible. This is especially true with the omicron variant, which was shown an ability to sidestep the body’s initial defenses. However, symptoms are likely to be mild and short-lived for fully vaccinated individuals.
By contrast, unvaccinated people are five times more likely to become infected by the coronavirus, according to the latest CDC statistics, and have a risk of death from COVID that is 14 times higher than that of a fully vaccinated person.
The differences between unvaccinated people and those have also had the booster shot are even wider — 10 times more likely to be infected and at a 20 times greater risk of dying.
However, last week, some good news appeared on the COVID front.
First, U.S. health regulators gave their OK to the use of new Pfizer and Merck COVID pills designed to head off the worst effects of the coronavirus.
Secondly, President Joe Biden authorized the distribution of up to 500 million free at-home COVID tests to help Americans quickly determine if they have been infected by the virus.
Third, a new study released Wednesday determined that the omicron variant generally causes less severe symptoms than those associated with the delta variant.
According to CDC statistics reported on the Bell County Public Health District website, 55.6% of all county residents are fully vaccinated — a number that is well below the nationwide figure of 72.8% but just below the statewide total of 56.6%. The CDC’s data tracker site has a lower figure, showing about 51% of the county’s residents fully vaccinated.
Either way, the message is clear: More Bell County residents need to step up and get their shots.
With the fast-spreading omicron variant threatening to cause a new spike in COVID cases across Bell County, it’s important that residents take all necessary precautions to keep themselves, their families and friends as safe as possible.
This means wearing masks whenever indoors, especially among with large crowds. This means stepping up hygiene measures such as hand washing and using antibacterial sanitizers. It also means being extra vigilant for symptoms that might be associated with COVID — an especially important task as Central Texas heads into cedar fever season.
Christmas has passed, but it’s not too late to give our loved ones, friends and neighbors the gifts of care and consideration.
It’s one of the best things we can do for ourselves — and for our community.
It’s also an important part of getting the new year off to a good start.
And after the last two years we’ve experienced, 2022 is going to need all the help we can offer.