The highly infectious Omicron variant is moving at astonishing speed, according to new projections. In the coming week, the number of Omicron cases in King County is projected to spike to levels three times higher than the highest peaks we’ve seen in the pandemic. We expect numbers to continue to rise in January.
A similar pattern is expected to emerge in other parts of the United States.
The severity of Omicron cases is still not clear. Most vaccinated people should be protected from severe infection, but we expect to see many more serious cases in unvaccinated people, as well as many milder breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.
This rapid rise in cases has the potential to be more disruptive than previous waves. It could endanger the health care system’s ability to care for people. It could also be a major disruption for businesses, schools, and key infrastructure, as employees become ill.
King County residents and workplaces are urged to take steps now to reduce their risk—both to keep themselves, their families, and the public safe, and in order to minimize the strain on the health care system and the community.
The new projections are based on the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in other countries, along with the latest local sequencing data.
“If we do a very simple 10-day projection of this rate of growth, we should expect approximately 2,100 daily Omicron cases in King County on December 22, 2021. This is approximately 3.5 times the Delta peak in King County in August,” said Trevor Bedford, computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“The biggest risk from this rapid spread of Omicron is for those who are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer, Public Health—Seattle & King County. “Vaccination and boosters will protect many people from severe illness, given our relatively high rates of vaccine coverage in King County. But with this fast surge, we could see a rapid increase in serious cases in unvaccinated people as well as an increase in less-severe breakthrough cases.”
The increase in cases due to the Omicron variant is being tracked at local labs, with much of the work done by the University of Washington.
“The UW Medicine Virology Lab is testing 200 to 400 samples a day and has seen the variant quickly grow in a matter of days. Currently, more than one-third of the COVID samples we sequence are the Omicron variant,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director, UW Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratory.
Steps to prepare
This coming wave of cases will pose new challenges that our community will need to respond to:
- Businesses and healthcare facilities should plan for impact on the workforce and reduce risk in the workplace.
- Schools may also see impacts from more cases in staff and students after the winter break. Now is a good time to reinforce risk reduction measures including universal indoor masking, improved ventilation, and communicating that students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of illness.
- For the public: It’s important for our sense of connection and well-being to gather with friends, family, and loved ones. Please do it as safely as possible and limit the number and size of indoor gatherings if you can.
To make things safer right now:
- Avoid crowded indoor spaces during the holiday season
- Limit the number of gatherings and, if possible, do a rapid test the day of the gathering
- Gatherings will be safer in well-ventilated spaces. Open windows for fresh air.
- Postpone travel where possible
- Now is the time to refresh your mask. Make sure it is well-fitting and high-quality. Everyone age five or older, regardless of vaccination status, is required to wear masks in indoor public settings like grocery, retail, theaters, and entertainment establishments, and at outdoor events with 500 or more people. Masks are also recommended for everyone in crowded outdoor settings.
- Visit Washington state’s Vaccine Locator to find a booster appointment.
- Take extra precautions for higher risk people in your life.
If you test positive:
- Stay home, except to get medical care.
- Take care of yourself. Get rest and stay hydrated. Take over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen, to help you feel better.
- As much as you can, separate yourself from other people in your home.
- Tell your close contacts that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. An infected person can spread COVID-19 starting 48 hours (or two days) before the person has any symptoms or tests positive. By letting your close contacts know they may have been exposed to COVID-19, you are helping to protect everyone.
- Public Health has information on steps to take if you or a family member tests positive.
The public health leaders shared this information in a media briefing on December 17. Watch the full video of the briefing on the Public Health Insider blog.
Originally published in Public Health Insider on December 17, 2021.