Henderson County isn't being spared from the omicron variant that's pushing COVID-19 case counts to new highs across the state, according to data shared Jan. 13 by Henderson County Health Director Steve Smith.
"The omicron variant has proven to be incredibly contagious," Smith says in a release. "It is usually quantified as being 3 to 4 times more infectious than the delta variant."
His letter comes on the heels of a plea from Pardee CEO and President Jay Kirby, who noted an increase of 71% in patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the week ending Jan. 10.
Kirby spoke of the strain the hospital is under, with an average of 90% of the COVID-19-positive patients in the hospital unvaccinated, urging everyone not vaccinated or boosted to do so, and to wear a mask.
Local hospitals have reported increasing patient levels in what Chris Parsons, Medical Director for the Pardee Center for Infectious Disease estimated was 97% due to omicron.
Smith shared data showing similar rates of rising cases nationwide, statewide and countywide, comparing Dec. 13 to Jan. 12, and Jan. 13, showing exponentially increasing case numbers.
As of Dec. 13, the county had a rolling seven-day average of 31.5 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, he shows. On Jan. 12, that was up to 134.8, and on Jan 13, 147.3.
That's an increase of more than 467% in a month.
Statewide and nationwide cases are seeing even steeper increases in the seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 residents, from 22.6 across North Carolina on Dec. 13 to 219 Jan. 12, and 225 on Jan. 13, an increase of almost 10 times.
Nationwide, the rate of 30.7 on Dec. 13 rose to 231.9 on Jan. 12 and to 238.4 on Jan. 13.
"The risk of contracting COVID-19 today is higher than it has ever been before," Smith writes in the release, in bold and underlined text.
And he says those rates are expected to keep going up, he says, citing patterns of case increases in places like Rhode Island, which has reached 504 new daily cases per 100,000 residents.
According to the latest data from the state Department of Health and Human Services, North Carolina added a record 44,833 new cases Jan. 13, continuing a trend of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases.
Henderson County, the state says, added 146 new cases Jan. 11 and 210 new cases Jan. 10.
Hospitalizations statewide have risen from 1,572 on Dec. 13 to 4,275 on Jan. 12.
"Public health has realized for some time that many people are experiencing some level of pandemic fatigue or COVID-19 fatigue," Smith says. "We're all weary of the restrictions and guidance about wearing masks and physical distancing. No one imagined that 21 months after the beginning of the pandemic that we'd be facing our most severe phase with the current omicron variant."
But given the bleak news, he's optimistic that those cases will decline significantly in the next three or four weeks based on current projections, urging folks to change and adapt their prevention strategies in the face of omicron.
First, he says anyone who's vaccinated and eligible for a booster should consider getting one as soon as possible, which significantly increases levels of vaccine protection.
While more breakthrough cases are happening with the omicron variant, Smith writes that vaccinations are still highly effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths.
Hospitalizations: Local hospitals see increase in COVID-19 patients amid omicron surge
Second, anyone unvaccinated should consider consulting with their physician about risk factors and benefits of vaccination.
"It might not prevent you from getting infected with COVID-19 but ill lessen your chances of severe health outcomes," Smith writes. "Our two local hospitals report that 90% of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated. Vaccinations are still the most effective way to protect yourself."
Third, he urges people to upgrade their mask type regardless of vaccination status, ideally from a cloth mask to a surgical mask or KN95 mask.
Finally, anyone symptomatic should stay home, self-isolate and seek testing, Smith recommends. If testing is unavailable, assume it's COVID-19 or the flu and self-isolate, wearing a mask in all interactions.
"We will be challenged on all fronts in the coming days," he says. "We ask for your help to achieve the best possible outcomes during this difficult phase. Thank you for everything you are already doing to keep yourself and others safe. It matters. Better days are ahead."
Derek Lacey covers environment, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.
This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: Henderson Health Director: Risk of getting COVID-19 higher than ever