CLEVELAND — As hospitals continue to battle a surge of coronavirus cases, the omicron variant is among the cases spreading, adding pressure to an already strained hospital system.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, 1,000 out of the 3,000 COVID-19 tests its conducting each day come back positive. The Clinic estimates half of those positive cases are the omicron variant, doubling the daily count of omicron cases from one week ago.
Dr. Abhijit Duggal, vice chair of the Department of Critical Care at the Cleveland Clinic, said there are still unknowns about the variant, which was first reported about six weeks ago in South Africa. Some of those unknowns revolve around how existing COVID vaccines will act against the variant.
"The issue with omicron and the fear with omicron is that it might be the kind of virus which the body's not able to mount as effective of a response because of the mutations that have happened," Duggal said. "Because of these mutations, the other fear is, is the vaccination effect going to be as good as it has been for other variants of this virus? That's the one big concern."
Omicron also appears to be highly transmissible compared to other variants.
"It has a much higher infectivity rate," Duggal noted. "What that means is that the likelihood of someone spreading this disease if they get infected is going to be much higher than the delta variant. That really is what we are seeing at a global level, where [in] places where omicron comes in, it becomes the dominant form very, very quickly."
Duggal says the more viruses have the ability to spread and "propagate infection," the higher the chances of mutation. Therefore, he stresses vaccination is the best course of protection against the virus.
"If we have a high amount of population that is already vaccinated, if we develop the so-called herd immunity, what that does is that breaks the cycle of transmission for the virus," he added. "By breaking the transmission cycle, what you then do is that the risk of mutation goes down, because the virus is not moving from people to people. It's that transmission that really propagates the risk of mutation."
In a press conference addressing hospital capacity and staffing concerns Friday morning, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also recognized omicron's speed in spreading.
"We are now at a very, very, very high level of this delta [variant], number of cases, number of people in hospitals," DeWine said. "The much more highly contagious omicron is here and it's fast spreading in the state of Ohio, as it has everywhere else.”
The governor reported that 4,723 Ohioans are currently in the hospital because of COVID-19, which is the the state's highest number of hospitalized patients from the virus since December 2020. With cases of delta and now omicron, the hospital system is feeling the pressure, and preparing for yet another surge.
"Right now, we are gearing for a potential post-holiday surge," Duggal warned. "We are in the midst of a surge; our capacity is really, really stretched tenfold and in many cases overflowing. If this continues to become a problem, that's definitely going to be a big strain on health care resources as we move forward."
In terms of symptoms of the omicron variant, Duggal says they would be similar to what has been seen so far in the pandemic, such as fatigue, muscle aches, and sore throat. A possible silver lining to the variant is that it might not be as severe as its predecessors.
"At least with the preliminary results, what it seems like is that the severity of the disease is not as much as we were seeing with previous variants of the virus."
Duggal encourages people to continue taking precautions, including masking, hand washing, and social distancing.