Gannon University confirmed what Erie County Department of Health Director Melissa Lyon already believed — COVID-19's omicron variant has spread to Erie County.
The Erie university's COVID-19 surveillance program identified the omicron variant Sunday in six samples it received from an Erie County business, Gannon spokesman Doug Oathout said.
The business has not given Gannon permission to identify it.
"They are six different people all from the same place," said Oathout, adding that Gannon does not know how many of the six people reside in Erie County. "The samples were all taken late last week."
Gannon uses genomic sequencing to decode the genes of COVID-19 viruses from samples provided by students and employees, and a number of area businesses that have contracted with the university for the service.
Oathout said Gannon has advised the affected business to discuss the cases with the county Health Department. He didn't know if that discussion had happened as of Wednesday afternoon.
"We have been in touch with the county and state health departments, and the CDC," Oathout said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. "We have not found omicron in any other samples."
Lyon said earlier this week that she was confident the omicron variant was already in the county. She believes it is responsible for the increase in new cases shortly after Thanksgiving.
Those numbers have declined in recent days, however. Lyon believes that might be due to more people using at-home COVID-19 tests and aren't ill enough to seek medical treatment.
"We wouldn't know about those cases," Lyon said.
The omicron variant was found in about 75% of COVID-19 samples collected last week from a region of the country that includes Pennsylvania, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported. It's an increase from just 10% the previous week.
Erie County sees fewer cases recently
Omicron's arrival comes as Erie County is seeing fewer COVID-19 hospital patients following a post-Thanksgiving spike.
The 14-day moving average of daily hospitalizations of county residents has declined from 122.5 on Dec. 3 to 101.1 on Wednesday. Wednesday's single-day total was even lower with 74 COVID-19 patients, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
"Our COVID census has gone down a bit. We are at 48 patients (Tuesday) and we were in the mid-60s earlier in the month," said Christopher Clark, D.O., Saint Vincent Hospital president.
UPMC Hamot had 30-35 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday, said Jim Donnelly, R.N., Hamot's chief quality and nursing officer. Hamot's and Saint Vincent's totals often include patients who live outside of the county.
The decline in COVID patients has allowed Hamot and Saint Vincent to each close one of its four COVID units in recent days, though the hospitals can reopen them within hours if needed.
It has also given hospital staffs a brief respite during a surge that started in August, shortly after the delta variant arrived.
"It's tough work. We can't underestimate how difficult it is to care for these patients under these conditions," Donnelly said. "Many of these patients are gravely ill, and they are frustrated and scared. And the severity of this illness is pretty high."
About 75% of the county's hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, according to hospital officials. But Donnelly said that percentage is a bit misleading.
"Most of our vaccinated patients with COVID are in the hospital for another reason," Donnelly said. "They have tested positive for COVID but they are at Hamot for an abnormal heart rhythm or some other issue. The actual percentage of vaccinated patients in the hospital because they have COVID is lower (than 25%)."
With omicron likely in Erie County, hospital leaders are prepared to treat more COVID-19 patients in the near future.
But they hope another surge doesn't happen.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers go back up to where we saw it with the delta variant," Clark said. "It's too hard to say if omicron will be worse than delta. The risk of hospitalization might be less but omicron appears to be more infectious."
Younger people dying from COVID-19 in 2021
Unvaccinated patients account for 75.3% of the county's COVID-19 deaths, while partially vaccinated patients account for another 7.7%, Lyon reported Tuesday.
The county has reported 324 COVID-19 deaths so far in 2021, the same number it reported in 2020. Here is a look at the county's COVID-19 death totals in recent months:
August — 14
September — 20
October — 40
November — 66
December — 28 (through Dec. 21)
The county's percentage of COVID-19 deaths involving people younger than 60 has risen from 3% in 2020 to 14.8% so far in 2021, according to the county Health Department.
Three of the 2021 deaths are county residents in their 20s. No county resident that young died of COVID-19 in 2020.
"We are seeing younger people die from COVID this year and most of them are not vaccinated," Lyon said.
The difference is almost as significant among the county's oldest residents. In 2020, 63.8% of COVID-19 deaths were people 80 and older, compared to 34.3% of deaths so far in 2021.
"The shift has gone to younger people as the vaccines are clearly protecting those who are older," Lyon said.
The county's highest vaccination rates, as of Nov. 8, were among those 70 to 79 years of age (97.8% with at least one dose). They were followed by those 80 and older (86.6%) and those 60 to 69 (80.1%).
The county reported 88 new COVID-19 cases in the county on Wednesday. The county's previous daily case totals included 110 on Tuesday, 79 on Monday, 95 on Sunday and 203 on Saturday.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Omicron in Erie: Gannon, health department confirm variant in region