COVID-19 is on the rise again in the Naperville area, just as confirmed cases of the Omicron variant are popping up in some US cities. Health experts are keeping an eye on local numbers, as well as emerging science on the new variant, and offering advice to stay protected.
DuPage and Will Counties are both sitting at high community transmission levels as defined by the CDC, with case numbers and average daily test positivity rates on the rise in recent weeks. Both counties’ average daily test positivity rates have risen by about 2% in the past week, with Will at 8.4% and DuPage at 6.1% as of November 30.
DuPage County Health Department Director of Client Access Adam Forker said it is difficult to make direct attributions to the cause of this jump. “Now we’re getting to the colder weather, and it’s happening at a time when schools are open, movie theaters are open, sporting events are full crowds – no crowd capacities at sporting events,” Forker said. “So there’s a lot more gathering going on, and that’s probably one of the most likely contributing factors.”
Forker also pointed to increasing data indicating waning immunity from vaccination, which could lead to more breakthrough cases. He said the CDC’s expansion of booster eligibility reflects this, and strongly recommended that “any adult who is 18 and older, had that primary Pfizer or Moderna six months ago or more, their initial J&J two months ago or more, should go out and get a booster.”
Edward Hospital Medical Director of Infection Control and Prevention Dr. Jonathan Pinsky said the hospital has also seen increases, with an average of 32 inpatient admissions over the last two weeks compared to admissions in the low 20s in weeks before.
Breakthrough infections make up about 20% of inpatient cases at Edward Hospital, mostly made up of elderly patients or those with weakened immune systems, Pinsky said.
Omicron Variant: What We Know
The COVID-19 Delta variant makes up most current cases in Illinois and nationally. “The question is, will [Omicron] out-compete Delta, or will Delta out-compete Omicron?” Pinsky said, citing transmissibility as a determining factor.
Scientists are still determining Omicron’s transmissibility, as well as the severity of Omicron infection and the effectiveness of vaccines against it. So far though, preliminary evidence has shown “several mutations which are concerning,” Pinsky said – about 30 mutations total. “These mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility with other variants, and also with a decreased response to antibodies.”
Pinsky cited US Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci in saying it would be about two to four weeks before we have solid data on vaccine and natural antibody effectiveness against the Omicron variant. He said while we are still waiting for that data, “it’s likely that vaccine induced immunity will still provide protection,” and added, “we think that with boosters, that should provide significant protection, event against this variant.”
Forker shared a similar sentiment, that “the high levels of antibody protection that are offered by getting a booster should only have a positive effect on preventing Omicron either way.”
Familiar Prevention Measures
Even though Omicron hasn’t officially touched down in Illinois, Pinsky said current local COVID-19 trends warrant concern as we enter the holidays. He noted that even for those vaccinated, the more unmasked contact with others, the higher the risk of transmission.
“I think it’s smart to try to limit those kinds of high-risk interactions to the really important people in your life,” Pinsky said. “Christmas with your mother and father, your immediate family.”
Luckily, those familiar with mitigation measures used throughout the pandemic won’t be surprised by advice to prevent Omicron infection. It includes masking up in indoor public places or crowded settings, avoiding large crowds, hand washing, physical distancing, isolating when sick, and of course vaccines and booster shots.
“All of those things are going to work against any variant, so we’re still very much encouraging people to practice those methods and those tools that we know work,” Forker said.
Matthew Bedore with the Will County Health Department pointed to IDPH guidance on travel as we enter the holidays. That includes delaying travel until fully vaccinated or boosted if eligible, testing one to three days before and three to five days after traveling if not fully vaccinated, avoiding crowds, using private transportation if possible, traveling during off-peak times, and masking up as required on public transit.
Forker said it’s impossible to predict a definite end to this pandemic. But he assured that the tools to research and fight the disease are stronger than ever, and that “no pandemic lasts forever. We’ll get to a place of it being more endemic and manageable at some point here.”
Naperville News 17’s Casey Flanagan reports.
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