SEATTLE — King County health officials expect coronavirus cases linked to the highly transmissible omicron variant will rise at an “astonishing speed” in the coming days, with current projections showing daily case counts three times as high as previous records before Christmas Eve.
Public Health – Seattle & King County hosted a news briefing Friday featuring a panel of some of the region’s leading experts, including Dr. Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutch whose pandemic-era work garnered him a national profile.
Bedford outlined the latest modeling assembled by the UW Virology Lab and the Seattle Flu Study, where projections call for the sharpest, fastest rise in cases since the pandemic began.
“If we do a very simple 10-day projection of this rate of growth, we should expect 2,100 daily omicron cases in King County on Dec. 22, 2021,” Bedford said. “This is approximately three times the number of cases seen at the highest point in the pandemic for King County.”
I expect case loads to climb suddenly and rapidly in a large number of well connected cities over the next week. This will take many by surprise but was baked in as soon as we knew Omicron Rt. 12/12
— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) December 17, 2021
Dr. Alex Greninger, an assistant director at UW Medicine’s Clinical Virology Laboratory, said his team has already seen omicron cases come close to surpassing delta cases over a very short window.
“The UW Medicine Virology Lab is testing 100 to 200 samples a day and has seen the variant quickly grow in a matter of days,” Greninger said. “Currently, more than one-third of the COVID samples we sequences are the omicron variant.”
Greninger noted that sequencing cases takes several days, and the most recent data reflects samples collected on Dec. 13. His team expects positivity rates have increased even further in the days since.
Looking at how the variant has spread in places where it was confirmed earlier — like South Africa and the United Kingdom — Bedford said King County could expect a similar doubling of omicron cases every two or three days, which would bring case counts well beyond their highest-ever point.
New York City shattered its previous daily record on Friday, reporting nearly 20,000 cases in a single day.
Since omicron is still relatively new, there is little data available to say definitively whether the variant causes more or less severe symptoms, panelists said Friday. However, vaccines and boosters have been shown to limit severity, even as omicron proves more effective at breakthroughs.
“The biggest risk from this rapid spread of omicron is for those who are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for 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. “
Though 86 percent of King County residents 16 and older are considered fully vaccinated, Duchin noted that 160,000 adults have not begun the process. Meanwhile, hospitals are at or near capacity across the region, due in part to a mix of COVID-19 patients, other illnesses, and staffing issues.
King County hospitals still have twice as many COVID-19 patients as before the delta wave, and critical care beds are 98 percent full, Duchin said.
With so many cases expected over the coming weeks, even if most people have a mild illness, the fraction that requires hospitalization could quickly overwhelm the region’s fragile health care system.
“Although there is some hypothesis that omicron may be associated with milder disease, any increase in hospitalization rates or hospital utilization will be pretty challenging for us and highly concerning,” said Dr. Santiago Neme, a medical director at UW Medicine. “Any COVID infection in a health care professional, even though it might be mild, takes that person offline and therefore cannot work. It’s never been a better time to get a booster and really follow the guidelines.”
The health department shared several recommendations Friday for ways households, businesses and schools can prepare for the surge in cases and help maximize their protection. Over the holidays, health officials recommended limiting the number of gatherings people participate in, following proper mask guidelines, taking care to avoid crowded spaces, and implementing rapid testing on the day of the event.
Duchin said people should also consider postponing trips if they can, especially to or from areas already experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission.
Here are more tips from Public Health – Seattle & King County:
Steps to prepare
It’s clear from the projections that this new wave of cases will pose new challenges that our community will need to respond to:
Businesses and healthcare facilities should plan for impacts on the workforce and reducing 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, 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 if needed. Make sure it is well-fitting and high-quality. Everyone ages 5 and older, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear masks in indoor public settings like grocery and retail stores, 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 DOH’s Vaccine Locator to get a booster appointment.
Take extra precautions for higher risk people in your life.
Steps to take if you test positive
With the dramatic rise in cases expected over the next few weeks, more of us will test positive. We strongly urge people who test positive to:
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 2 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.