Winter could strain hospitals as omicron, flu circulate in Washington


Aaron Kunkler


Top health leaders in Washington met today to provide an update on the omicron variant of the coronavirus ahead of the Christmas holiday. 

During the briefing, Secretary of Health Umair Shah said they are watching what will happen with the new variant, which appears to be more transmissible than the delta variant, which until recent weeks had been essentially the only strain circulating in the U.S. However, Shah said that the new variant, while more transmissible, also appears to lead to less hospitalizations. 

“It is too early to pronounce that as a done deal,” he said. 


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Even if the new strain of the virus is less severe, if it infects more broadly and has the ability to partially evade vaccines, that could lead to a groundswell of infections. That could become a concern at a time when hospitals and the health care system are experiencing staffing shortages. 

Still, Shah said vaccines provide powerful protection against severe illness or death, and encouraged residents to receive booster or third shots, or to begin receiving vaccinations if they haven’t yet. Hospitalization rates in November were 19 times higher among the unvaccinated for those 12 to 34 years of age, and 18 times higher for those 35 to 64, and 13 times higher for those 65 and older. 

“Please get your booster immediately, as quickly as you can,” Shah said. 

Vaccine efficacy at protecting against infection wanes over time. Last month, Dr. Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer for Population Health at the University of Washington, said that vaccine efficacy reaches about 20% protection against infection after beginning to decline roughly six months after the last shot. 

Shah also encouraged people to take either a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, whichever they can get, instead of holding out for a specific shot. 

Gov. Jay Inslee has directed the state Department of Health to work with partners to expand vaccine capacity, and more information is expected to be released in the coming days on that work. 

Scott Lindquist, the state’s epidemiologist, said the omicron wave is setting the stage for a difficult winter as it competes with the delta variant and the flu, but cautioned it’s still too early to determine whether omicron does in fact cause less severe disease. 

“It’s way too early to predict will omicron cause excess hospitalizations, excess death,” he said. 

New modeling is expected this week from the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which will take omicron into account. In an update from last week, IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray stated that once omicron is in a population, it replaces the delta variant in less than three weeks. They’re expecting omicron to become the dominant variant globally by January. 

“Our preliminary assessment of transmission potential suggests that we will have a very large global epidemic wave from omicron unfolding at a much faster pace than the delta wave spread around the world,” Murray said. 

The wave will likely peak in January. It’s also becoming clear that there is considerable immune escape. Those who have been previously infected with delta or other variants have about a 50% chance of being infected with omicron. 

At the same time, studies out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, suggest that the new variant is from 75% to 95% less severe than delta. 

However, despite these unknowns, Murray said that boosters do make a significant difference in immune response, and that high-quality masks also offer significant protection.