Merced County Times Newspaper
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Omicron is decreasing; mask rules are changing

Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Merced County’s Supervising Epidemiologist, told the Times, “On Jan. 20, there were 1,140 new COVID cases in Merced County, which marked the peak of our surge.  Since then, we’ve seen a precipitous drop-off.  Cases are dropping in the county and throughout the state.”

Comparing the Omicron Variant with the Delta Variant, she said, “Overall, Omicron is a much less severe variant, but the numbers have been so elevated because it was so contagious and so many people were getting sick.

“With Delta, we saw a really rapid rise and cases lingering at a high level for a long time, but with Omicron, they came up quickly and are coming down quickly.

“We are still at a high general level of cases.  Our number of probable active cases, those reported in the last two weeks, is 3,538, but at the peak of this wave the probable active cases were over 10,000, and that was about three-and-a-half weeks ago.

“On Feb. 14, we had 101 new cases, 161 on Feb. 13, 237 on Feb. 12, and 164 on Feb. 11.  Thursday, Feb. 10, our highest day recently, was 373.  It’s still high numbers.

“Our peak in Delta was 239 cases, but 373 for Omicron is really great because it shows we’re coming down.

“There are no new concerning variants coming out yet, but probably there will be another variant.  That’s just what viruses do.  This virus has been so difficult to predict.  We don’t know what variations that variant will have or what activity it will do.


What is the Stealth Variant?

“The Stealth Variant is the second Omicron variant, and the only way to definitively identify it is whole genome sequencing, which is a DNA test for the virus.  But it takes awhile for the results to come back.

“With Omicron, it had a gene drop-out so on a standard test that is not rapid, like the tests you take at the Fairgrounds, PCR tests, they test for a variety of genes to see if you’re positive for COVID, and for Omicron, one of those genes didn’t pop, and the gene drop-out patterns meant we were dealing with Omicron.  We could see a pattern that meant it was Omicron without having to do the longer test.

“With Stealth Omicron, it didn’t have that same pattern so it couldn’t be detected by the PCR test.

“It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Omicron or Stealth Omicron.  We’re not seeing the new variant coming into communities and taking over, like Omicron came into communities that had Delta and took over.


Vaccinated vs. unvaccinated?

Https://  has a great graphic that’s very interesting.  There’s a part about tracking COVID cases, and they have a graph on cases, hospitalizations and deaths between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

“The data from Jan. 17 to Jan. 23 shows that unvaccinated people were 5.9 times more likely to get COVID than people who received their booster dose.

“For hospitalizations, people who were unvaccinated were 11.4 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who received the booster.

“Unvaccinated people were 21.8 times more likely to die from COVID than those who received the booster dose.

“The risk is slashed for people who get the vaccine.  The best analogy is people who wear seat belts still die in car accidents, but at a much lower rate than people who don’t wear seat belts.


Mask rules

“As of Feb. 16, the mask mandate will be lifted back to the rules on Dec 15.  Right now, the mandate is masks are required for everybody indoors, but it will change to be lifted to fully vaccinated people do not have to mask indoors although it’s highly recommended in areas with high transmission such as ours; the unvaccinated still have to wear masks.  The lifting of the masking requirement does not apply in schools, on public transportation, and in health care facilities, skilled nursing and other congregate settings such as prisons.

“There has been a lot of controversy on the school masking requirement, and the state will reassess it on Feb. 28.  There may not be a decision made on that date, but at some point, it will turn into local control, where counties and school districts will be able to decide masking based on their own data.

“The good news is that even if the universal requirement for masks is lifted, there are still actions you can take on your own, irrespective of what other people are doing, that can reduce your risk.

“The California Department of Public Health showed there is risk reduction for each type of mask, with the highest risk being people not masking, then cloth masks, then a well-fitting surgical mask, and then the highest rate of protection is wearing a K95 or N95 mask.  You can buy K95 and N95 masks at medical supply stores or on Amazon.


Clinical trials

“In a vaccine clinical trial, there are two things they are looking at — whether the vaccine is effective and whether it is safe.  The age six months through 4 years group had a subset of 2 through 4-year-olds that didn’t have the immune response they needed to see to show it was effective.

“They did see the immune response they needed to see in the 6 months to 2 years, and that’s because children’s immune systems develop at different rates.  Sometimes, vaccines are more effective at a really young age.

“So they didn’t see the immune response they needed to see in the 2 to 4-year-old population, so they decided to test a third dose of the primary series of the vaccine.  They were in the trials for that.  They were not moving forward with applying for FDA approval.  But with Omicron being so contagious and the FDA really wanting to have a form of protection for these kids, they told Pfizer, ‘Why don’t you bring forth the data you have and we’ll review it while you’re still collecting the data for the third dose?’  This is a little bit unusual and I think was only because of the threat of Omicron.  They were supposed to review that today [Feb. 15], but they announced over the weekend they’ve decided to wait until the full data trials are done after all and then they’ll decide whether to allow the vaccine for the age group six months through age 4.

“Hospitalization rates tend to be higher in the zero to 4-year-old group, and the under 1 age group is much more vulnerable because their lungs are still developing.  But the most important thing is to be sure the vaccine is safe and effective, so it’s good they are doing their due diligence; but the back and forth has been confusing and frustrating for parents.”

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