Clallam County’s COVID-19 case rate jumps, likely due to omicron variant

Health officer cites holiday gatherings, winter sports

COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed into the new year due in part to holiday gatherings and the continued spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, health officials said.

One potential bright spot came from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which has approved booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine for youths 12 and older.

Clallam County saw an increase of 305 cases of COVID-19 over the weekend, marking a total of 6,522 cases since the pandemic began, with a case rate of 1,096 per 100,000 population for the past two weeks.

Nine people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Clallam County as of Monday.

Dr. Allison Berry, the health officer for the North Olympic Peninsula, said the majority of the new cases are likely the omicron variant, although testing has not confirmed it.

“A lot of people are struggling to understand this new variant, which is dramatically more contagious, and I think there is a common misunderstanding or lack of understanding around the severity,” she said.

Berry explained that while the omicron variant is less severe than the delta variant that exploded over the summer, it’s more severe than the original strain of COVID-19 on its own, especially for those who are unvaccinated.

“What we are seeing from the data out of the UK is that the omicron variant is 20 percent less severe than the delta variant when it comes to unvaccinated people,” Berry said.

“But in order to understand that number, you have to understand that the delta variant was 50 percent more severe than the original virus. So if you are unvaccinated right now, the omicron variant is actually more dangerous than the original COVID.”

Berry said the misconception that omicron is like having a severe cold or the flu lies within the numbers.

“While people talk about it being less severe, but unless you put the numbers to it, you can get the misconception that it’s basically like having a cold or the flu, and if you’re unvaccinated, that’s not true,” she said.

One of the most vulnerable groups among the unvaccinated right now are children younger than 5, for whom a vaccine is not yet available.

“We are seeing a higher rater of hospitalization in kids now than we ever have, at least nationwide,” Berry said. “Fortunately, we haven’t seen much of that here, not yet at least. I think the key thing here is that it is hard to have a kid who is not eligible for vaccination, and the best way to protect those kids is to manage how many people they come into contact with and to make sure that those people are vaccinated.”

Vaccinations for children younger than 5 may be available in the spring.

“Unfortunately, the first round of data showed that two doses were not enough to protect that age group, because their immune system changes so much,” Berry said. “Now they are in trial for a three-dose series for that age group, but that means we are unlikely to see vaccinations for those kids until the spring.”

Berry lauded the work that is being done in the schools to keep older kids safe, although she shared concerns about winter sports programs, given the continued fallout from some wrestling tournaments.

“The one thing that makes me nervous is winter sports,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of transmission in the sports arenas. So that’s something that we are going to be watching very carefully.”

One thing that may help is the recent approval of the Pfizer booster shot for children 12 and older. The FDA said the boosters can be available five months after their two-shot series. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to make its recommendation on the booster by the end of this week.

“I do recommend that parents get their kids boosted if they are in that age group,” Berry said. “We are seeing breakthrough infections in that age group, especially with kids being in school and in sports and, with it being winter, kids are gathering indoors. So, to reduce the risk of a breakthrough and isolation and quarantine that would interrupt their school schedule, I would really encourage folks to get those boosters as soon as they’re available.”

Quilcene High School will host a kids vaccine event from 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 15, when those 5-17 can get their first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Pending approval by the CDC, kids 12 and older can also get booster shots.

Adults 18 and older can get the Moderna vaccination at Quilcene High School from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.