‘No question’ omicron will become dominant COVID strain in Ohio, but impact still unknown

There is no question that omicron will become the dominant COVID-19 variant in Ohio as it continues to spread throughout the state, health officials said Wednesday.

“We do know from surveillance that the cases of omicron are very rapidly on the rise, especially in northern Ohio,” said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff. “There is no question that in the day and weeks to come where omicron is now the new dominant variant. It’s happened everywhere else that omicron has gone.”

While health experts are continuing to research and monitor the new variant, initial reports indicate that while omicron is more contagious, it might not cause as many hospitalizations.

“The omicron variant [in South Africa] was in fact associated with much less of a burden with hospitalization,” Vanderhoff said. “Will that translate to countries like the United States that are older and have many other situational differences? We don’t know yet.”

After the delta variant has driven cases and hospitalizations the last few months, health experts are concerned about the impact of second highly-transmissible variant.

“Even if it turns out to be true that [omicron] causes proportionately fewer hospitalizations, if you’ve got so much more spread, we’re still going to have great pressure on our hospitals,” Vanderhoff said.

The initial wave of Ohio National Guard members being deployed to help hospitals dealing with staffing shortages and large number of patients will be in northern Ohio.

The first wave will seven hospitals in Mahoning, Trumball, Summit, Stark and Lucas counties.

“More hospitals are being actively evaluated and will likely be added as the needs dictate,” said Vanderhoff.

Nearly 150 medically-trained and 600 non-medical Guard members will be deployed by the end of the week, with the remaining 300 to be deployed by the end of next week, Vanderhoff said. Gov. Mike DeWine announced last week a total of 1,050 Ohio National Guard members were activated to help with staffing shortages.

On Tuesday, Ohio added more than 12,000 cases of COVID-19, the most the state recorded in a day during the pandemic.

“The 12,502 cases reported in the past 24 hours is the highest true 24-hour case reporting throughout the entire pandemic, with only days that have reflected backlogs or multi-day reporting after holidays exceeding [Tuesday’s] figure,” read a statement from the health department.

With omicron spreading throughout the country and world, health experts in Ohio are urging residents to get vaccinated or receive boosters ahead of Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“As this virus is able to spread between non-immune and vulnerable people, it can mutate again and again,” said UC Health Associate Chief Medical Officer and infectious disease physician Dr. Jennifer Wall Forrester. “Because of these mutations, the omicron variant has developed some changes in the spike protein that has made us more susceptible. That paired with time and waning immunity may be why we’re seeing some vaccinated people catching this variant.”

Health experts are still looking at natural immunity versus the vaccine and how long immunity lasts, she added. For those who had COVID, their level of protection depends on when they had the virus and which variant they had. For the vaccinated, it depends on when they received the initial vaccine series.

“What studies have shown regardless is those who have already had COVID are even much more protected once they are vaccinated,” said Forrester.

“This strategic deployment will allow the Ohio National Guard to support larger hospitals that can expand their services to accept transfer patients, which in turn will alleviate pressure on smaller and rural hospitals, allowing them to move patients to larger hospitals,” Vanderhoff said.

The Ohio National Guard is being “very careful” with which medical professionals are being mobilized to avoid taking away resources from other hospitals and facilities, said Ohio National Guard Major Gen. John C. Harris Jr.

The non-clinical Guard members will help with transporting food and patients, cleaning facilities, COVID testing and other tasks that can help relieve pressure from hospital staff.

It’s not clear how long the deployment will last at this time.

Ohio is also working with a health care staffing agency to bring in nurses and other qualified workers from out of state to fill positions.

Nearly 4,800 COVID patients were hospitalized in Ohio on Tuesday, with 1,206 in ICUs and 769 on ventilators.

Vanderhoff noted the high patient counts and staffing shortages don’t just impact COVID patients. Overwhelmed hospitals may have longer emergency room waits as patients with broken bones, heart attacks and other injuries wait to staff and beds that are occupied by coronavirus patients.

“All these patients require time, staff and resources,” Vanderhoff said. “With these numbers we have a troubling picture, one that should be a wake up call.”

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