Omicron Variant Causing Record-Breaking Rise in COVID-19 Cases

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We know you’re tired of COVID-19 – trust us, we are too.

As one Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse recently told us, “Everyone is fed up with COVID, but there is no group more fed up than frontline health care workers. Get vaccinated.”

Driven by the Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases are setting local, state, and national records. One in three Michiganders are testing positive for COVID-19, and on January 5, Michigan recorded the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per day since the pandemic began.

With vaccines and boosters available, why are we seeing peak records now?

“The current surge is related to the emergence of the Omicron variant, which is highly contagious and more able to infect those who are vaccinated. Its surge coincided with holiday travel, so we saw some of our highest positivity testing rates after Christmas, and even more after the New Year holiday,” said Liberty Jacques, DNP, RN, director of Infection Prevention & Control at Mercy Health. “Omicron is more likely to infect people, even if it doesn’t make them seriously ill. Compared to last year we are in a much better place. If we had this number of cases without the vaccine, we would see drastically higher hospitalization rates and hospitals would not be able to keep up.”

While hospitals face record-breaking surges and critically ill patients, staff are saddened and trying to keep up while facing their most difficult career moments as health care workers.

“I had one patient who I knew was struggling. I could see it in his eyes,” said a tearful Kerri Leonard, RN at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s. “His wife died of breast cancer and his daughter was about to graduate from college. He was a younger man, maybe late 50s or early 60s. He could have had the vaccine and he kept saying, ‘I wish I would have gotten the vaccine.’ I told him not to go there, I said, ‘Let’s just focus on getting better,’ but he got worse over time. It’s difficult when patients have regrets. He passed wishing he would have been vaccinated.”

Of all the COVID-19 variants, Omicron is spreading more rapidly because it is much more transmissible, and now accounts for almost all new cases across the country and in Michigan.

“Omicron appears to reproduce much more powerfully than previous variants. If infected people have high virus loads (the amount of the virus that is in their system), there’s a greater likelihood they’ll pass it on to others — especially the unvaccinated,” said Jacques. “Vaccinated people who get the virus are more likely to have mild symptoms, if any, since the shots trigger multiple defenses in your immune system, making it much more difficult for Omicron to slip past them all.”

Think of the COVID-19 vaccine as a dam for your body. There’s no guarantee it will keep out every drop of water, but the chances of gallons of water seeping through and causing immense damage, is rare.

“Vaccines are designed to prevent severe illness, and they are doing a great job of that,” said Andrew Jameson, MD, division chief of Infectious Diseases and regional medical director of Infection Control for Mercy Health. “We are seeing that the vaccines are working because the  majority of people hospitalized are unvaccinated people. Yes, vaccinated people can still contract and transmit COVID-19, but their chances of being hospitalized or dying of it are incredibly slim. Additionally, getting the booster dose provides even more protection. Boosters increase levels of the antibodies to help fend off infection.”

So, when will the pandemic end, if ever? There are reasons to be optimistic. Compared to last year, we are in a much better place even with the very high case rates. If we had this number of cases without the vaccine, we would see drastically higher hospitalization and death rates. There are also new antiviral medications that can reduce hospitalization in high risk/vulnerable patients and new vaccines are in development that could be less impacted by variants.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 is unlikely to go away permanently, but it is possible that it will become endemic rather than pandemic,” said Dr. Jameson. “Which means there are still likely to be seasonal winter peaks, like with flu, and an annual booster for COVID-19 will probably be needed to deal with new variants and waning immunity. We will have to be more vigilant with respiratory viruses than we were in the past and put all the lessons we have learned into practice including social distancing, hand hygiene – and staying home when ill. The most important thing is to get vaccinated, get boosted if you are vaccinated, and practice social distancing and masking. Those simple things could save your life.”

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