JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As concerns spread about the new Omicron variant, local public health leaders told News Channel 11 they are searching for answers as they become available to best prepare for what they call the inevitable.
The variant was identified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” for its likely rapid transmissibility, but health leaders are left scratching their heads when it comes to anything particular about the variant and its many mutations.
“WHO is listing it as a variant of concern, as for the possibility of increased transmission, we’re still not sure about the morbidity and mortality was only really picked up about November the 10th. So it’s only been around for, you know, two or three weeks, so we’re still learning,” said Dr. Stephen May, Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Monday.
Though this new variant is concerning, multiple local health leaders News Channel 11 spoke with Monday said they were not surprised.
“Well, as the virus continues to multiply unchecked, it’s not unanticipated to see different variants that pop up,” May said.
At East Tennessee State University, the emergence of the Omicron variant also did not come as a surprise to Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of ETSU College of Public Health.
“It’s important that we recognize that as long as the virus is circulating, it will mutate,” Wykoff said.
The mutations spreading also fits the pattern, according to experts in Virginia.
“We don’t know much about the Omicron variant so far. So it was first described in southern Africa by a group of South African scientists and has since been found in various places in the world, including Hong Kong, parts of Europe and Canada. The Omicron variant has not yet been described in the United States, but I would be surprised if it were not already here, somewhere,” said Dr. Patrick Jackson, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia.
Regional public health leaders told News Channel 11 they are in contact with colleagues in South Africa to learn more about the genome sequencing of the Omicron variant.
Omicron was first identified in South Africa in mid-November, but its exact origin remains unknown. Its origin isn’t the only thing that remains a mystery.
“Omicron is probably more transmissible. I haven’t seen any information on whether it causes more serious disease or whether it can evade our immune system,” Wykoff said. “I think the general thought is that we may well be preparing to see a new spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”
The hard work now falls on the shoulders of scientists to figure out how the new variant differs from those already identified and how it’s to be treated.
“We know that the Omicron variant has a bunch of mutations in some key parts of the virus and some of those mutations have been associated with increased transmission. So increased ability of the virus to spread from person to person, as well as possibly some resistance to some of our drugs for COVID-19 or maybe even less susceptibility to the vaccine,” Jackson said.
Regardless, health experts agree the COVID-19 vaccine remains the first and only line of defense.
“The challenge is that no one knows for sure what’s going to happen,” Wykoff said. “Right now, the best weapon that we have is vaccination.”
But the concern grows as holiday travel and gatherings loom while studies of the Omicron variant have shown mutations in the virus’s spike protein.
“Those could be ways for the virus to potentially get around our immune response that we formed in response to our vaccines. It could be ways for the virus to get around the monoclonal antibody drugs we’ve been using to treat some patients and possibly changes in spike could be associated with differences in how efficiently the virus can spread from person to person,” Jackson said.
Fewer people vaccinated, more infected
“Even in the absence of Omicron, there have been some hints that we’re seeing some upticks in COVID-19,” Jackson said of the nation.
“We’re starting to see a little bit of a rise over the last week,” Dr. May said of the COVID-19 case rates in Sullivan County.
By nearly any measure, Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia have worse numbers than their respective states and the nation as a whole.
Look at vaccination numbers, whether by totals or by age group, at least one dose, fully vaccinated, or with a booster to boot, and the story is consistent. Percentages are lower, in most cases significantly than Virginia statewide and national averages.
They’re also lower in Northeast Tennessee than in Tennessee in most categories, with booster percentage being the one exception, though the gap is narrower between the former State of Franklin and the remainder of the Volunteer State.
Those low vaccination rates have been accompanied by COVID case rates that have exceeded those of both states.
In the case of Southwest Virginia, that gap has been more than double since mid-September, sometimes rising as high as two-and-a-half times. The rates are rolling seven-day case totals per 100,000 population to adjust for population.
Since mid-November, Northeast Tennessee’s rate has separated ever further from Tennessee’s overall rate.
At the beginning of the month, the rate of 145 was 42% higher than Tennessee’s 102. By Nov. 15, the rate had risen to 198 — 60% higher than Tennessee’s, which had climbed to 124.
On Monday, Northeast Tennessee’s rate stood at 243 new weekly cases per 100,000, or 121% higher than Tennessee’s rate of 110.
Northeast Tennessee’s test positivity rate has also been climbing steadily over the past three weeks. It hit a delta surge low of 10% on Nov. 9. It had risen to 13.3% by Nov. 24, before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Over the weekend, some of the fall’s lowest testing totals likely artificially lowered the case rate, which came down from near 280 to its current 243 while the seven-day positivity rate spiked to 15.8%. Tennessee’s positivity rate also increased, from 6.9% to 8.7%.
“We will put shots in arms, even one or two people a day, like that’s great to us. We want to see people get vaccinated because we do have such low numbers and we are readily available to anybody,” Allie Phillips, Virginia Department of Health Population Health Manager for LENOWISCO/Cumberland Plateau health districts said.