Maryland health officials detected the first three cases of the omicron variant Friday after reporting more than 1,700 new COVID-19 cases for the second consecutive day, signaling what experts caution could become a holiday-season spike in virus transmission
The three cases of omicron were discovered in individuals from the Baltimore metro area, state health officials said Friday. One of the infected people had just traveled from South Africa, where the variant was first detected. The person is vaccinated.
One of the person’s close contacts also was infected with omicron, officials said, and was not vaccinated. The third person infected with the omicron variant did not have contact with the other two and had not recently traveled and had been immunized. None of the three has needed hospitalization, officials said.
While much remains unknown about the latest coronavirus strain, which first surfaced Wednesday in the United States, scientists and researchers said it is likely to be more easily transmissible than prior versions of the virus.
The World Health Organization listed omicron as a “variant of concern” late last week, just after Thanksgiving. Public health experts are working to determine how the existing COVID-19 vaccines cope with omicron, whether it is more deadly than previous strains and how quickly it jumps from person to person.
The omicron cases were not surprising to experts including Andrew Pekosz, professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He said researchers are comparing omicron to the delta variant now dominating U.S. cases and assessing how much protection is lost from vaccines.
“We knew it wouldn’t evade all the protections,” Pekosz said. “From other viruses, particularly influenza, we know that even when vaccines and strains circulating aren’t perfect matches we see protections from severe disease. We have to keep our eye on the prize: minimize hospitalizations, minimize severe disease and death. From all indications, your vaccine will protect you from severe disease.”
He said omicron cases in South Africa so far have seemed mild, but they could progress. So scientists and doctors will be watching over the next week to learn more about omicron, he said.
Public health expert said omicron highlights the need to take precautions as the winter holidays and cold weather season approach, which include getting vaccinated, staying home when ill, masking in indoor public spaces and getting booster shots.
A week after many people gathered for than 1,000 cases , Maryland recorded 1,828 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, the most in a day since April 9, and 1,700 cases Friday, , according to the state health department. More than 1,000 cases have been reported every day since Tuesday.
Viruses are said to spread most efficiently indoors, and that’s typically where people get together when it’s cold out. People are known to travel and gather more around the holidays, be it for religious services or family functions. Last year, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Maryland and nationwide increased from November through the rest of winter.
Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor of public health at George Washington University, said not enough time has elapsed since Thanksgiving for coronavirus infections contracted over the holiday to reflect in the COVID-19 case metrics. However, given what happened after holidays past, Wen wouldn’t be surprised if the case count climbs higher.
“We could very well see another increase because of Thanksgiving,” said Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner. “And of course we don’t how, if at all, the new variant, omicron, is going to be affecting the situation in Maryland and the U.S. either.”
Christopher Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor in Loyola University Maryland’s biology department, said early data shows that omicron is “significantly more” transmissible than earlier variants, but infections may not be as severe.
“It’s certainly a cause for concern, but not a ‘variant of panic,’” Thompson said. “We’ve seen mostly all mild infections; but we don’t know if that’s going to be the rule or the majority. We don’t know how this will affect immunocompromised individuals or children or the elderly. We still need to be really careful about this.”
Maryland could start to see even more elevated case counts around two to three weeks after Thanksgiving, said Dr. David Marcozzi, the University of Maryland Medical System’s COVID-19 incident commander and senior vice president and chief clinical officer of the University of Maryland Medical Center. By that time, many will be preparing to celebrate Christmas and solidify New Year’s Eve plans.
“The biggest concern right now is that this is just the start of a significant increase in cases and any effort we can take just to slow that down, protective measures: vaccination, boosters, mask wearing — right now is the key time to stop that increase,” Marcozzi said.
Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday chalked up climbing COVID-19 metrics to the changing seasons while urging residents to be responsible by getting tested for and vaccinated against COVID-19 while scientists studied the new variant.
“We’re beginning to see the anticipated seasonal uptick in some of our key health metrics, including our positivity rate, which has now increased to more than 5%,” the Republican governor said.
The state’s average testing positivity rate reached 5.44% Thursday, the highest mark since April 17, according to the health department.
Health department data shows 767 people remained hospitalized statewide Friday with COVID-19 complications. That’s roughly 200 more people hospitalized than Nov. 3, but 400 fewer than April 9, the last time the state eclipsed Thursday’s new case count. Of those still hospitalized Friday, the data shows, 183 required intensive care.
“We know there are going to be spikes, but, if you look at the data, spikes aren’t where they once were. Hospitalizations aren’t where they once were. We’re mediating this pandemic,” said Dr. Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the Bethesda-based de Beaumont Foundation, a public health-focused charitable organization.
“Case or not, what we want to see is that people aren’t severely ill,” Castrucci said. “It’s really the acute cases that have gone up, not the ICU cases.”
Some of the least vaccinated counties in Maryland, which are mostly rural, have the highest case rates per capita and highest testing positivity rates. Garrett and Washington counties have the first and second highest case and positivity rates; neither has fully vaccinated half its population. The counties of Allegany, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester and Queen Anne’s also have significantly elevated rates compared to statewide averages.
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Anytime there’s a spike in cases, it’s usually because of a variety of factors, Marcozzi said. Chief among them is people who aren’t vaccinated. Marcozzi is concerned that unvaccinated people who contract coronavirus could burden hospitals.
“Any decisions we’re making has such an impact on everyone else’s delivery of health care,” Marcozzi said. “If I come into the hospital because I didn’t get my vaccine, I don’t allow someone else to come into the hospital who could require hospitalization for another problem not COVID related.”
It remains to be seen, he said, if more cases will lead to more hospitalizations across the population and regardless of vaccination status.
About 1 million of Maryland’s more than 6 million residents have received a COVID vaccine booster, including the 27,136 boosters reported Friday — a single-day high, according to the health department.
Meanwhile, roughly 68% of Marylanders have completed their initial COVID-19 immunization course, either by getting two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or the single-shot from Johnson & Johnson. Approximately 8.4% of Marylanders have gotten just one of the two-dose vaccines, according to state health department data.
Wen and Castrucci said it’s equally important to wear masks in certain situations, including gatherings where some people’s vaccination status is unknown or areas where there’s high coronavirus transmission.
“My concern is that much of the country, for very understandable reasons, are really sick and tired of thinking about COVID-19,” Wen said. “The problem, though, is that the virus is not sick of us.”