Omicron variant, one of most contagious ever, seen in 4 counties; Beshear urges vaccines, boosters, masking, caution for holidays

FILE PHOTO: Test tubes labelled "COVID-19 Test Positive" are seen in front of displayed words "OMICRON SARS-COV-2" in this illustration taken December 11, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Reuters graphic

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The highly contagious Omicron Covid-19 variant has been identified in Kenton, Campbell, Fayette and Jefferson counties, prompting Gov. Andy Beshear to plead that Kentuckians get a Covid-19 vaccine or booster shot, and to urge schools and businesses to require rigorous masking.

“This thing is going to spread so fast that any school that is not doing mandatory masking, any business that is not having their folks wear masks could see entire schools, entire shifts get infected very, very quickly,” Beshear said at a Saturday news conference. “Folks, I’m telling you, If we don’t make the decision to put back on that mask in these situations, it’s going disrupt everything we’ve worked so hard to get back up and going.”

In September, the Republican-run legislature stripped the Democratic governor of much of his ability to manage the pandemic, including his ability to impose mask mandates and other public-health measures.

Asked what that will mean for Kentuckians in the coming months, since experts are saying it will require more than just vaccine or booster shots to slow its spread, Beshear said all he can do is level with the people and hope they will make good decisions.

“This is a moment where stripping authority from a governor may come back to bite us, but what I can do is give people the facts, just the straight facts about how quickly that this is going to spread,” he said. “But listen, just getting Covid is a significant disruption to your life and to our economy. So we just need people to make the smart decision — for them, for their businesses, for their schools and for the people around them.”

He added, “If you’ve got one of the most contagious viruses that we’ve known, that’s what we think this will be, in modern history, if you’re not making the right decisions, you’re absolutely infecting people around you. Listen, we’ve seen an outpouring of love and support this last week; let’s just continue to be good people and and to protect one another.”

Beshear was referring to the response to last weekend’s tornadoes that devastated parts of Western Kentucky and killed 78 people.

Health Commissioner Steven Stack called Omicron “one of the most transmissible or contagious infections we’ve had in the last century,” explaining that it may be that every one person with Omicron could infect up to 18 or 20 other people.

For perspective, he said every one person who gets the flu may infect one or two other people and every person with the Delta variant may infect between one and five people.

Stack added that with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, it could become the predominant strain of Covid-19 in Kentucky in a month. Right now, almost all of the cases in Kentucky are the Delta variant.

“So it’s more important than ever that we take the benefit of the things we have learned over the last nearly two years so that we can take relatively focal steps to minimize it spread, to minimize the harm it causes and still be able to go on on with our lives,” he said.

That includes getting the Covid-19 vaccine, getting a booster, wearing a mask when indoors or in crowded situations, social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene, staying home when you are sick, and doing a rapid Covid-19 test before attending a social gathering if possible.
Further, Stack advised that if you will be in an indoor space for an extended period, to upgrade your mask to an N-95 because the Omicron variant is so much more contagious.

The good news is that so far Omicron appears to cause milder symptoms and has not led to a spike in hospitalizations in South Africa and the United Kingdom, where there has been significant spread, said Stack.

Stack said the Pfizer-Bio-NTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines are effective against Omicron, but you need to get a booster. And because the Omicron variant is so effective at infecting people, there will be an increase in breakthrough cases.

“But remember the vaccines, if they keep you from ending up in the hospital and they keep you from dying –they have done their job,” Stack said.

He said “widely available data” shows that having a prior Covid-19 infection is unlikely to be sufficient to protect you from re-infection and that this group needs to get vaccinated and boosted too.
He also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently changed its guidance and is encouraging people to get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, which are created with messenger RNA, instead of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine
So far, 2.7 million Kentuckians have received at least one dose of a vaccine, or 62% of the total population; 2.4 million are fully vaccinated, 54% of the total; and 744,729 have received a booster shot, 17% of the total.
Stack cautioned that Kentucky still has counties where less than one in three people are vaccinated.
 “Folks, that’s a recipe for disaster, particularly with something like Omicron because if it sweeps through your community, it’ll hit everybody quickly,” he said.  “So please, we’re just trying to help you and help keep you safe. I hope you’ll be open to going and getting vaccinated.”
He also encouraged unvaccinated Kentuckians to not count on monoclonal antibodies to protect them against Covid-19, saying that recent data shows that two of the three available brands of these synthetic antibodies are not effective against Omicron.
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