ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Omicron is here and local health leaders aren’t surprised.
Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza hosted a COVID-19 briefing Thursday afternoon with University of Rochester Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Apostolakos and Rochester Regional Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Mayo.
The health leaders’ briefing comes one day after the omicron coronavirus variant was first confirmed to be in Monroe County.
“The samples were collected between December 1 and December 15 and the results became available yesterday,” Dr. Apostolakos said.
Dwight Hardy, the director of clinical microbiology for UR Medicine Labs and the scientist who helped discover the local omicron cases, said there was also at least one confirmed case of omicron in each of Wayne and Ontario Counties.
“We now have confirmation of omicron in our region and this is not a surprise,” Dr. Mendoza said. “I am grateful that many in our community have been getting their booster and I’m also grateful that our community has found a new sense of why it’s important to wear a mask.”
“We hope our community uses the omicron news as a wake up and tall to take the steps to protect us,” Dr. Apostolakos said.
Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for 73% of new infections last week, federal health officials said Monday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron’s share of infections in only one week.
Since the end of June, the delta variant has been the main version causing U.S. infections. As recently as the end of November, more than 99.5% of coronaviruses were delta, according to CDC data.
“We are heading into a new surge of COVID, whether we like it or not,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It is not the same as delta.
“Today we report 680 new cases of COVID-19,” Dr. Mendoza said. “I expect that number will soon be significantly higher and there will certainly be disruptions to our everyday life. We need to make sure we do everything possible to contain this spread of infections. My goal is to keep our community and schools open.”
“We know that the omicron variant moves very fast and we should assume that it will become the dominant variant in our community, if it already isn’t,” Dr. Apostolakos said. We should anticipate an increase in daily cases, but it is important for the public not to be fooled by this. While breakthrough infections will occur, we know that illness is less severe for those who are vaccinated.”
With the anticipation of more daily new cases, the health commissioner said it’s important for people who test positive to take action immediately and not wait for the health department to contact them due to backed up contact tracing efforts.
“We want the public to know that if you get tested as positive for COVID, we ask that you don’t wait for the health department to call you,” Dr. Mendoza said. “You should isolate and stay in a separate area in your home. We ask that if you need to meet someone, you should both wear a mask. I want the infection of omicron to be minimized, even if in our households.”
The health commissioner also encouraged residents to wear masks when around people that are not in their immediate household, adding that people should get their booster shots.
“Get your booster shot,” Dr. Mendoza said. “You will have significantly more protection against omicron in a matter of days, not weeks.”
“It’s clear that the booster is great at reducing the effects of illness,” Dr. Mayo said.
“Please get your booster shot,” Dr. Apostolakos said. “It is one of the best gifts you can give to your families and to the health care workers who will spend the holidays treating COVID.”
Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about omicron less than a month ago and on Nov. 26 the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of concern.” The mutant has since shown up in about 90 countries.
Much about the omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.
“We are seeing that omicron may be more favorable than delta, but there are details that may pose new challenges,” Dr. Mendoza said. “The scientific community here is studying on how omicron will impact our community and loved ones in the coming days and weeks as we will learn more in the days ahead. We know that omicron spreads more quickly, which means people can develop symptoms more rapidly.
Along with the omicron presence confirmation, county health officials also reported 754 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday. As of Wednesday, the county was averaging 479 new cases per day over the past seven days with a seven-day rolling average positivity rate of 7.4%.
According to the New York State Department of Health, 502 people in the Finger Lakes region are hospitalized with the virus, including 138 in an ICU. Exactly one year ago Thursday, there were 775 people in the Finger Lakes region hospitalized with the virus, including 125 in an ICU.
“The pandemic continues to be a daunting challenge on our health care system,” Dr. Mayo said. “The pandemic continues to impact the Rochester Regional Health hospitals. Currently, in five Finger Lakes hospitals, there are 196 patients with COVID, 45 in the ICU, and 80% of them are unvaccinated. 32% are on ventilators and we hope the best for them.”
“We are very concerned about our staff becoming ill due to omicron,” Dr. Apostolakos said. “If they get infected, they can’t work for 10 days, which would exhaust our staff.”
County officials report COVID-19 deaths weekly on Mondays. To date, 1,550 Monroe County residents have died from COVID-19.
As of the Monroe County COVID-19 dashboard’s last local vaccination update on December 20, 506,922 county residents are fully vaccinated and 547,237 have received at least one dose of the vaccine — 83.9% of the county’s 18+ population.
Watch the full Press Conference here:
Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story. The Associated Press contributed to this report.