Omicron spreading rapidly in Georgia as Christmas week arrives

Passengers cross the atrium at The Atllanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Passengers cross the atrium at The Atllanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

The omicron variant is spreading quickly in the U.S. and could trigger a huge wave of coronavirus infections as soon as January, according to new forecasts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The coronavirus is surging throughout the U.S. as the December holiday season approaches, particularly in colder climates. Cases of the new omicron variant of the virus are expected to rise next month after families gather for the holidays, White House officials said Wednesday. The latest statistics show that omicron cases double about every two days, according to the CDC.

The proportion of omicron infections in Georgia and surrounding states is lower than other parts of the country, according to the latest estimates by the CDC. But the potential of twin epidemics — one from the highly transmissible but potentially less severe omicron, and the other from the more severe delta — has public health officials concerned as holiday gatherings approach.

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211215-Atlanta-Passengers cross the atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

211215-Atlanta-Passengers cross the atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

caption arrowCaption
211215-Atlanta-Passengers cross the atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Overall in the U.S., during the week that ended Saturday, Dec. 11 omicron accounted for 2.9 percent of cases across the country, up from 0.4 percent in the previous week, according to agency projections released on Tuesday.

In a southern region of eight states that includes Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi, for the week that ended Saturday omicron cases accounted for under 1% of all the coronavirus cases — 0.79% — according to the CDC.

Other parts of the country are seeing omicron cases accelerate much faster. In the region comprising New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the percentage of omicron infections had already reached 13.1 percent, according to the latest estimates.

Despite omicron’s rapid rise, it’s delta that still accounts for 99 percent of COVID-19 cases in Georgia.

In a briefing on Tuesday with state and local health officials and representatives of public health labs across the nation, CDC officials warned of two possible scenarios. The first was a tidal wave of infections, both omicron and delta, arriving as soon as next month, just as influenza and other winter respiratory infections peak.

Federal health officials also forecast a second scenario in which a smaller surge of omicron cases occurs in the spring. It was unclear which forecast was more likely.

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE

Though illness caused by omicron seems to be less severe than that caused by delta, if it proves more infectious and spreads further, it could still send greater numbers to emergency rooms and swamp state medical systems.

“My thought is whether it is delta or omicron or whatever comes next we have to get more people vaccinated,” said Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. “If you are someone who wanted to ‘wait and see’ about the vaccine, please don’t wait any longer. As long as people are not vaccinated, COVID will continue to spread, and variants will continue to emerge.”

Toomey and other public health officials also urge adults who are six months out from completing the initial course of vaccination to get their booster shots. Despite reports that the current vaccine may be less effective at preventing infection with the new variant, it still appears to guard against severe illness and deaths, they say.

As of Wednesday, only five cases of omicron had been detected in Georgia. Officials think the variant is much more widespread in Georgia and across the country because health authorities have the capacity to genetically sequence only a small portion of test results to confirm its presence.

ExploreCOVID vaccines more popular ahead of holidays

The release of a large study from researchers in South Africa, the country that first warned the world of the emergence of the new variant in late November, provided some encouraging results. The study found that the people infected with omicron so far have had a 29% lower chance of being hospitalized than those infected with the virus that was circulating in South Africa in March 2020.

But experts caution that what happens in South Africa, which has a relatively young population, might not be repeated in the U.S. and among older populations.

The omicron variant is new and severe disease that takes time to develop, so scientists say it could be a couple of months before more is learned about its severity.

Toomey also cautioned against underestimating the new variant and putting too much stock into early data suggesting omicron causes more mild illness. She pointed to debilitating long-haul COVID symptoms some people experience, including some who only had mild cases.

Ken Thorpe, chair of the Department of Health Policy & Management in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said of the troubling new models, “This just reinforces to me, and I know there is COVID fatigue, that we have to use every tool we can.”

Thorpe said hospitals should look for innovative ways to alleviate overloads, such as using home-based remote patient monitoring kits that lets healthcare providers remotely monitor patients’ vital signs and receive updates and deterioration alerts.

“We are seeing an uptick in cases, but not a surge quite yet,” said Dr. Doug Olson, medical director of the Emergency Department at Northside Hospital Forsyth. “As far as for delta, I don’t expect a big surge except for a slight increase after the holidays. Omicron, I definitely think will increase. What impact it will have on our inpatient census we don’t know yet.”

-The New York Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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File photo of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination viles displayed during a Clayton County Public Schools COVID-19 vaccination and testing drive at G.P. Babb Middle School in Forest Park. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

File photo of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination viles displayed during a Clayton County Public Schools COVID-19 vaccination and testing drive at G.P. Babb Middle School in Forest Park. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

caption arrowCaption
File photo of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination viles displayed during a Clayton County Public Schools COVID-19 vaccination and testing drive at G.P. Babb Middle School in Forest Park. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Boosters and Vaccines in Georgia

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 152,787 booster doses were administered in Georgia between Dec. 8 and Tuesday, up 55% from the week before.

In Georgia, about 60% of the population has received just a single dose of vaccine and 50.1% are considered fully vaccinated, defined as having received two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer shots; or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Out of the Georgians considered fully vaccinated, about 1.2 million, or only 22.4%, have received a booster shot. Nationally, 27.2% of fully vaccinated persons have received a booster, the HHS data show.