Harris: Omicron ‘spreading like wildfire,’ urges vaccination, boosters

Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 10:40 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 4, 2022 at 7:02 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris held his first COVID-19 public briefing in months on Tuesday as the new omicron variant surges across every county of the state.

Harris said the Alabama Department of Public Health is seeing numbers of new COVID cases not seen since the pandemic started nearly two years ago. On Dec. 28 a record 8,151 new cases were reported.

Harris said ADPH believes most of the variants circulating right now are omicron.

The state has blown past the record test positivity rate of nearly 25 percent that led the nation during the recent delta variant surge. Now, nearly 40 percent of tests are coming back positive for the virus, which Harris noted does not include home tests for which no data is available. That means ADPH is most likely seeing an undercount on the number of positive tests.

“Testing, you know, is becoming a huge problem for us. You can see the sheer numbers of people who are out there seeking a test,” Harris said. “I don’t think any state has enough testing to go around, but we’re working very hard to address this. It is possible, still right now, to get tested every day in every county health department in Alabama. We are working with some of the private vendors that we had work with previously just to see if we can get additional testing sites set up again. Please do not go to your hospital just to get a COVID test.”

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have climbed rapidly in Alabama in the last week, and the level of community transmission is considered high in every county. Two weeks ago, hospitals were managing around 300 COVID patients. Now, that number has nearly quadrupled to 1,100. Harris said 1,100 inpatients would normally be fairly manageable, but with staffing issues caused by infected healthcare workers, it is putting a strain on the system.

“It is spreading like wildfire,” Harris said, noting that the virus will probably infect “everyone in the state” at some point.

The health officer stressed that being fully vaccinated and boosted seems to protect most people from serious illness, hospitalization or death. Alabama remains behind almost all other states for vaccination rates. The state’s 2.2 million fully vaccinated residents place it in the bottom five in the nation.

The latest surge has been a very challenging situation because it’s much more contagious than the delta variant, Harris said. And while he noted it’s too early to know exactly how serious it is, some data from other countries suggests it may be half as deadly as delta but still 10 times more dangerous than influenza.

Harris also discussed the new CDC guidelines that make quarantine and isolation periods shorter for some. He says that does not apply to schools and noted that ADPH is still waiting for new school guidance from the CDC.

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