Omicron has officially become the dominant coronavirus variant in King County and much of Western Washington — and will soon overtake the delta variant in the rest of the state, a Harborview Medical Center leader said Thursday.
The highly transmissible variant that’s been concerning health officials and scientists nationwide will likely outpace delta in a “matter of days to weeks,” Dr. John Lynch, Harborview’s medical director for infection prevention and control, said in a statement.
“I know this is hard for everyone,” Lynch said. “As someone who’s been dealing with this, as someone who sees patients with it, as someone who’s been working very hard for two years now to prevent new cases — if that happened to me, I would stay home if my antigen test was positive.”
Despite omicron’s quick spread, healthy people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot “should mostly expect coldlike symptoms” if they get sick from the variant, Lynch said.
Still, some Washington state hospitals are already seeing signs that COVID-19 hospitalizations are again “in the midst of a surge.” But the crush they’re worried the variant could cause largely hasn’t hit yet, hospital leaders said in a Thursday news briefing.
As of Thursday, King County was averaging 778 daily infections, a 169% increase in the last seven days compared to the week before, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard. There’s also been a 2% increase in hospitalizations in the past week, the dashboard reported.
King County saw a single-day increase of 2,879 new coronavirus cases Thursday, and cases nearly doubled statewide from the previous day with 4,154 new cases reported Thursday by the state Department of Health.
Statewide COVID data remains incomplete for the past week, though the seven-day average hospitalization rate has remained fairly consistent since the beginning of December. The seven-day average infection rate increased slightly between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13, from 112.5 cases per 100,000 people to 116.8 cases per 100,000, according to DOH data.
The statewide epidemiological curve, however, doesn’t quite capture all of the most recent trends for specific areas of Washington, hospital leaders said Thursday.
South King and Pierce counties, for example, currently stand out for their recent rise in COVID hospitalizations, said Mark Taylor, a registered nurse and director of operations for the Washington Medical Coordinating Center — a center housed at Harborview Medical Center that balances placement of COVID patients requiring acute hospital care throughout the region.
Part of the recent increase there could be attributed to the delta surge or the result of Thanksgiving get-togethers, Taylor said.
He added, however, that the rise also “absolutely could be the beginning of the impact from the new variant.”
Early reports show the illness caused by omicron might be milder than the delta variant, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, at the University of Washington, this week predicted the infection-hospitalization rate for omicron would be 90% to 96% lower than the rate for the delta variant.
The institute also projected that over the next two months, 60% of the U.S. population will “likely be infected with omicron” — meaning the sheer number of infections could still overwhelm already overburdened hospitals, Taya Briley, executive vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said Thursday.
The state’s hospital association and health care labor unions have been warning the public for months about long-term staffing and capacity issues. Briley echoed the same concerns Thursday in a plea for the public to be smart this winter. She also reminded residents that because the omicron variant is highly transmissible, hospital leaders are concerned how that might affect staffing.
“Even if staff don’t get super-sick from omicron, it’s still going to affect their ability to go to work because they need to isolate themselves,” Briley said.
In addition to wearing well-fitted, high-quality face masks, getting vaccinated and distancing, Briley also encouraged people to “appropriately seek care when they need it.”
“We continue to see people waiting until they’re having an emergency to seek care,” she said, advising people to reach out to primary-care physicians and nurse help lines early.
The primary strain on the state’s health care continues to be patients who don’t need acute care but are stuck in hospitals because of staffing shortages at long-term care facilities.
Unless these patients can be immediately moved to nonhospital settings, Briley said providers aren’t sure they can provide care to everyone who needs it during a big spike in COVID hospitalizations.
“Over these past months, we’ve shared our ability to successfully manage COVID-19 spikes and to care for everyone who needs it,” she said. “We’re feeling differently about that today.”