NC braces for the spread of the Omicron variant as it quickly increases across US

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Across the nation, the much anticipated Omicron variant is rapidly increasing. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the variant makes up around 73% of all new COVID-19 cases detected between Dec. 11-18.

Just two weeks ago the variant accounted for less than 1% of all new COVID-19 cases. Between Dec. 11 and Dec. 18, the share of Omicron cases grew sixfold as the once-dominant Delta variant shrunk to represent just one out of every four new cases nationwide.

In some parts of the country, the share of the Omicron variant exceeds 90%.

North Carolina is one of eight states in part of the southern region that the CDC shows the variant now makes up 95% of all new cases for the week of Dec. 11-18. Only the northwest region of the state is reporting a larger share of the variant at 96% (Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington).

However, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) said the latest surveillance data within just North Carolina shows fewer than 5% of the state's cases were linked to the variant. NCDHHS' latest information dates to the week of Dec. 11.

The first case of Omicron was reported on Dec. 10 in Mecklenburg County and since then additional cases have been identified including in Orange and Durham counties.

A spokesperson for NCDHHS said that most cases of COVID-19 infection do not undergo genomic sequencing, which is how variants are determined.

"Sequencing results are used for population surveillance to understand what variants are circulating in the state, therefore cases identified through genomic sequencing should be regarded as an indication of presence rather than an absolute number," a spokesperson explained through email.

An NCDHHS spokesperson said on Tuesday that Delta is still the dominant variant in North Carolina with more than 95% of cases linked to the Delta. However, NCDHHS does expect Omicron to become the dominant variant in the coming weeks.

"Numbers for the most recent weeks will increase over time since there is generally a 2-4 week period between when specimens are collected and when sequencing results are reported," an NCDHHS spokesperson wrote.

On Monday, North Carolina leaders pleaded with residents to get vaccinated and stay vigilant as Omicron inevitably spreads.

"These actions are urgent as North Carolina and the nation brace for the impact of the even more contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19," Governor Roy Cooper said during a press conference on Monday.

Thomas Denny, Chief Operating Officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said individuals should assume the variant is already in their area.

"If people understand that it's here and it's highly infectious, they should understand that most of them especially that are unvaccinated and not employing social distancing approaches are going to be susceptible to it," Denny said.

He also said individuals should assume national and state data are underestimated.

"I think you just look at it and you look at around the country, where the trends are and we're not going to be any different from that," Denny said. "It's just a question of is it this week, next week or the week after, but you know, the trend is coming."

Experts said this variant is highly contagious. Early evidence reports the variant is four to six times more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain.

"It is daunting and it is alarming, but that's just another indicator of how infectious this variant is," Denny said.

Health experts also said while the variant will likely infect even fully vaccinated and boosted individuals, the vaccine will help reduce the level of illness.

"Omicron is the most contagious we have seen yet and we will likely see record high cases in the coming weeks. Second, and most importantly- you can act now to best protect yourself and family and friends," said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary.

Denny joined the plea is getting North Carolinians to continue to stay vigilant, masking up and getting vaccinated.

"We have several tools in the toolbox to change the trajectory. And if we would just come together as a society and begin to use them, I think we'd all be better off," he said.
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