Officials urge caution as Omicron cases appear and spread in Allegheny County | Coronavirus | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Officials urge caution as Omicron cases appear and spread in Allegheny County

click to enlarge Rich Fitzgerald at a COVID briefing in Point State Park in November  2020 - CP PHOTO: NARDOS HAILE
CP Photo: Nardos Haile
Rich Fitzgerald at a COVID briefing in Point State Park in November 2020
Omicron has proven to be a highly contagious variant of the COVID-19 virus. Spreading quickly over the last few weeks, it has led to thousands of canceled flights, the re-closing of businesses, and canceled events as more and more people have tested positive for infection.

Now the Omicron variant has come to Allegheny County, and officials are warning residents to exercise caution in order to avoid catching and spreading the virus further.

A Dec. 22 press release from the Allegheny County Health Department Confirmed that a specimen collected on Dec. 7 was confirmed to be the Omicron variant. A second case collected Dec. 13 was confirmed to be the Omicron variant on Dec. 23.

On Dec. 29, there were 1,660 cases of COVID in Allegheny County, with seven deaths being reported. Around the same day last year, there were over 900 positive cases and over 50 deaths.

Officials are concerned about the rate at which the new variant has spread, even among those who received the required vaccinations and additional booster shot. Bogen says there have also been reinfections among those who previously had and recovered from the virus.

“Omicron is highly contagious and is causing daily cases to rapidly increase in other parts of the country and world,” stated ACHD director Debra Bogen on Dec. 28 during the county’s regular COVID briefing. Bogen adds that the county can expect to see a “rapid rise” in the variant in “the coming days to weeks.”

While the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to determine the exact details of Omicron, the federal agency found that, as of Dec. 20, Omicron "has been detected in most states and territories and is rapidly increasing the proportion of COVID-19 cases it is causing."

Bogen believes that the number of new COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County is actually higher but is being under-reported as residents are opting to use at-home tests instead of going to a testing site.

In response to the rise in COVID-19 cases in the Pittsburgh region, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald stressed that county residents should get their vaccinations. He added that 918,000 county residents have received at least one vaccine shot and almost 300,000 more have received their booster.

“We know that the vaccines are effective at preventing infection, hospitalization, and death, or, in the event of a breakthrough infection, are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person,” said Fitzgerald.

Reports have shown that Omicron-related symptoms among fully vaccinated individuals usually appear as a mild cold, while unvaccinated individuals could face life-threatening illness or even death.

Still, many have been left scrambling trying to find out just how Omicron presents itself in the infected. A COVID symptom study organized by an international team of researchers released an app through which users can report their symptoms. According to a Dec. 24 article from Vox, the study found that, based on information from over 4.7 million app users, the top symptoms for Omicron include runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and a sore throat.

In addition to getting vaccinated, Bogen recommended that residents should practice physical distancing and stay home, as well as get tested if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. She added that anyone who has come into close contact with a COVID-infected person should get tested 5-7 days after exposure.

For those looking to get tested, the ACHD coronavirus webpage offers a testing site locator map, a mobile and fixed-site testing schedule, a link to Curative test sites in the county, a vaccine provider search, a pop-up vaccine clinic schedule, and more.

Bogen said county residents should also wear a “properly fitting mask” when out in public, especially indoors, and that wearers should consider double masking by wearing a surgical mask covered by a cloth mask, two surgical masks, or a N95 mask. The local business community can “help slow the spread and protect their workforce by requiring masks in their businesses.”

The ACHD has been tracking the virus using wastewater surveillance, working with local wastewater utilities to collect and treat sewage from more than 80% of the county’s residents. Samples have been collected since late October, and the virus has been detected in all of them, with the Omicron variant being detected in small amounts around Dec. 10.

Bogen said that, while the ACHD continues to monitor the situation, residents should brace themselves as the virus continues to impact daily life.

“Unfortunately, we are already seeing the impact of rising cases on the healthcare workforce and beyond,” said Bogen. “Many organizations, businesses and service providers are experiencing absenteeism due to the virus and exposures.”

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