The omicron variant skyrocketed to account for more than 90% of Colorado’s COVID-19 cases three weeks after it was found, but it’s not clear what its dominance will mean for the state.
The new variant was found in just 0.1% of samples with genetic sequencing during the week of Nov. 28, when the delta variant still dominated, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. By the week of Dec. 19, about 91.2% of COVID-19 test samples sequenced in the state contained omicron.
In contrast, it took delta 13 weeks to get above 90%. Omicron has two advantages over delta and other variants: it spreads more easily, and is more likely to cause a breakthrough infection in people who have been vaccinated or a reinfection in those who survived a previous version of the virus.
Emerging data suggests even people who have had a booster shot may be more likely to be infected with omicron than with previous variants, although they’re expected to have less-severe symptoms. (Researchers in the United Kingdom who found evidence boosters’ effectiveness waned against infection didn’t yet have enough patients hospitalized with omicron after a booster shot to run calculations.)
“If you’ve been vaccinated twice, please get that third shot,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference Wednesday. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, you should be very careful over the next few weeks.”
New cases have surpassed the most recent peak, set in November, and reached levels last seen in mid-December 2020. An average of 14% of COVID-19 tests also came back positive over the most recent seven days with data, suggesting the state doesn’t have a full picture of how people are infected. Polis acknowledged some testing sites have had long lines, but urged people with symptoms to look for a different location.
“There are 100 others without a line at any given time,” he said.
It’s clear cases will continue to increase in the short term, but the picture for hospitalizations is murkier, said Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer at the state health department. As of Wednesday afternoon, 1,088 people were hospitalized for confirmed COVID-19 in Colorado, for a fourth day of increases.
So far, there’s no sign of an increase in hospitalized children, which some northeastern states are reporting, France said at the news conference. As of Wednesday afternoon, 26 people younger than 18 were receiving care for COVID-19 in Colorado hospitals.
It appears omicron is significantly less likely than delta to cause severe illness, but it’s not yet clear if that’s because the virus itself is different, or because it’s infecting more people with some immunity, France said. Many scenarios are possible, from a “mild bump” to an “overwhelming bump,” he said.
“What may feel calm today could change in as little as 48 hours,” he said.
Omicron also differs from delta because it moves faster, which led to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to change its guidance on when to stay home, France said. Most people who are infected with omicron develop symptoms in one to three days, and they tend not to shed the virus for more than a few days afterward, he said.
The new guidance is:
- If you know you have COVID-19, you should stay home and avoid others for five days. If you haven’t had a fever for 24 hours after completing those five days, you can go out again, but should wear a mask when around other people.
- If you’ve been exposed to the virus but have had your booster shot, you can continue your normal activities as long as you don’t develop symptoms. You should wear a mask around others for 10 days.
- If you are unvaccinated or haven’t had a booster shot and are exposed to the virus, you should stay at home for five days. If you don’t have symptoms after five days, you can go out again, with a mask. It’s best to take a test to confirm you’re not infected before resuming normal activities, though.
The guidance is controversial because 20% to 40% of people may still be contagious five days after they experience symptoms. France said he thinks the CDC guidance threads the needle of reducing infections while minimizing disruption.
“There’s this nice change that will get our workforce back in,” he said. “As we know, we have staffing challenges across all areas of our economy.”
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