EVANSVILLE, Ind. — With the omicron variant making landfall in the United States, COVID-19 cases in Vanderburgh County more than doubling in the past month and local positivity rates worse than they were in August, there's plenty of fresh news about the coronavirus.
And all of it is bad.
"It’s definitely alarming. We thought we were on a really good trajectory there after August, September, and then it just started creeping right back up," said Dr. Heidi Dunniway, chief medical officer of Ascension St. Vincent South Region.
Dunniway spoke to the Courier & Press Wednesday, hours before U.S. officials confirmed the first known case of omicron had been detected in the U.S. The news broke just days after the potentially virulent and highly mutated variant's rapid spread in South Africa. The infected individual was a traveler who returned to San Francisco from South Africa and was fully vaccinated.
Indiana COVID cases: Indiana reports more than 6,000 new COVID-19 cases
Over Thanksgiving weekend, the World Health Organization promoted omicron to a variant of concern. That means it is thought to be more transmissible and able to cause more severe disease. With its high number of mutations, omicron may elude immunity protections gained by previous infections and even vaccination, presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Sunday.
In addition, scientists suspect omicron may be more successful than previous variants at re-infecting those who have already had COVID-19.
It's all enough to leave Dunniway on edge — and fearful that the new variant's arrival here is inevitable.
"We have to assume it’s going to continue to spread," she said. "It has several mutations, but we really just don’t know much about how it’s going to behave."
State, CDC scanning for omicron; area residents can too
Southwest Indiana residents who want to watch for omicron's possible arrival in the Hoosier State can go to the Indiana State Department of Health's statewide COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks variants of concern. The page does not yet include omicron, but ISDH told the Courier & Press Wednesday it will be added soon.
The state participates in the CDC’s now ramped-up surveillance program and does its own sequencing — the process of finding small changes in the virus’ genetic code — of positive COVID-19 samples.
Omicron explained: What you need to know now about omicron, the newest COVID variant
“We anticipate our lab will be able to test for the omicron variant soon,” state health officials said in an email.
The Green River District Health Department in Kentucky, which covers Henderson County, said the CDC's regional variant tracker is a useful tool for residents there.
There were 93 new cases of COVID-19 recorded for Henderson County in the Green River District Health Department’s numbers released Tuesday — a 111% increase over the number posted last week. However, this Tuesday’s report covers the seven days from Nov. 23 to Nov. 29 while last week’s report covers a three-day span.
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COVID-19 surge is in full swing locally, and vaccination isn't
Even accounting for delays in testing attributable to the long Thanksgiving weekend and even without omicron, COVID-19 cases already are soaring locally.
Several data points show Vanderburgh County is in the midst of a surge that threatens to eclipse the 10-week, delta variant-fueled surge that peaked in late August. Other data illustrate an upward trend in local and state hospitalizations:
The number of reported cases in Vanderburgh County has more than doubled — from 217 in October's final week to 492 last week. And the new week all but guarantees to produce a significantly higher number. On Monday and Tuesday alone, 237 cases were reported.
Indiana ranked 17th among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. The state reported 6,164 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the highest number of new cases added to the state’s dashboard in a single day since early January.
Vanderburgh County's seven-day positivity rate hovered just below or surpassed 14% from Nov. 24 to Nov. 27, the most recent data available. In the final week of August, when the county recorded a peak of 1,302 cases, it never got as high as 13%.
Indiana remains among those states with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate. Just over 60% of those 18 and over are fully vaccinated, according to the state's vaccine dashboard. Nationwide, more than 71% of that population is vaccinated, according to the CDC's COVID Data Tracker.
Ascension St. Vincent Evansville, which does not regularly report COVID-19 hospitalization data, said Wednesday that 29 patients were hospitalized with the coronavirus there. Nine were in the ICU. Dunniway said the number had "at least tripled" in the past few weeks. Deaconess Health System reported 65 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday. The number was 35 three weeks ago.
USA TODAY analyzed federal hospital data as of Sunday. It found that last week, 2,650 likely COVID-19 patients were admitted in Indiana — a 37% increase over the figure posted four weeks ago.
The CDC's announcement of the nation's first confirmed omicron case came just before Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a statement on his decision to sign the 21st renewal of the state's public health emergency.
More on Holcomb: Holcomb extends COVID public health emergency for 21st time
Nightmare scenario possible if people don't get flu vaccine, doctor says
The specter of omicron is prompting a familiar refrain from public health experts and doctors.
"Particularly while we don’t have broad immunity with vaccination and broad protection, (that) allows the virus to continue to replicate more quickly, and that makes it more likely to mutate," Dunniway said.
"This is not unexpected behavior for a virus like this, but it does really stress the importance of taking the precautions – trying to avoid crowds, masking, hand washing, all the things that we’ve been doing for the last couple of years and are very tired of, but they’re absolutely necessary right now."
Those over 18 who received a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine more than six months ago, or a Johnson & Johnson vaccine more than two months ago, should get their boosters as quickly as possible, Dunniway warned.
COVID-19 vaccination appointments can be scheduled at any vaccine clinic at https://ourshot.in.gov. Individuals without a computer or cell phone can call 211 (866-211-9966). Walk-in appointments are accepted at most vaccination sites.
To find a site to get a booster, visit ourshot.in.gov.
There is a nightmare scenario that can still happen if people also don't get their flu vaccine, Dunniway said.
The Ascension St. Vincent leader pointed to a flu outbreak numbering hundreds of cases at the University of Michigan in October and November. A CDC response team was dispatched to investigate the outbreak. A majority of cases involved individuals who did not get a flu shot this year, officials said.
The Michigan cases were identified as the H3N2 strain of influenza, one associated with hospitalizations and deaths in years past.
"What we don’t want to see is a double hit (of COVID-19 and flu cases), and certainly there’s concern for that," Dunniway said. "That could be incredibly overwhelming to the system, and just really devastating. We can prevent that.”
COVID-19 cases in Evansville-area counties
Overall tallies as of Thursday morning:
Vanderburgh County has reported 34,458 COVID-19 cases in all during the pandemic and 496 deaths.
Warrick County has reported 12,113 COVID-19 cases in all during the pandemic and 190 deaths.
Gibson County has reported 7,056 COVID-19 cases in all during the pandemic and 118 deaths.
Posey County has reported 4,054 COVID-19 cases in all during the pandemic and 44 deaths.
Thomas B. Langhorne can be reached by email at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: COVID-19 trends 'definitely alarming' in Tri-State even without omicron