Cases skyrocket as Omicron impacts area, region

Courtesy graphic

HANCOCK — Driven by the arrival of the Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases have surged to pandemic highs.

The first Omicron case in the western Upper Peninsula was confirmed less than a week ago, though it has been presumed to be here at least since the start of the month.

As of Wednesday, the average weekly case rate in the five-county area had risen to 1535.8 per 100,000. Just before New Year’s, the same rate stood at 192.3 — itself almost twice the rate considered high by the CDC. Those case counts do not include positives recorded through home testing.

The Copper Country results by county:

≤ Baraga County: 1,288 weekly cases per 100,000 (112 in the past week); 24.39% positivity; three deaths in the past week.

≤ Houghton County: 1,661 weekly cases per 100,000 (609 in the past week); 31.03% positivity; four deaths in the past week.

≤ Keweenaw County: 1,637.9 weekly cases per 100,000 (36 in the past week); 28.57% positivity; no deaths in the past week.

≤ Ontonagon County: 841.5 weekly cases per 100,000 (53 in the past week); 33.13% positivity; three deaths in the past week.

“It’s still on its way up,” said Robert Van Howe, medical director of the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.

As of last week, local hospitals were seeing the same number of hospitalizations, but an increased number of visits to the emergency room, Van Howe said. Hospitalizations typically lag behind infection rates.

“They’re getting hit fairly hard,” he said. “It hasn’t shown any sign of letting up.”

As of Friday, 76 patients were hospitalized in the Upper Peninsula with suspected or confirmed COVID — among the highest rates of the pandemic, though below the pre-vaccination peaks of winter 2020. Twelve adults were in intensive care units. The number of patients had risen from the 65 recorded as of Jan. 4, though the number of patients in the ICU had declined from 16.

Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital had five COVID patients (three in the ICU), with a total bed occupancy of 45%. Others with COVID patients locally were Baraga County Memorial Hospital (three patients, 47%), and UP Health System — Portage (seven patients, one ICU, 58%). UP Health Marquette had a 77% occupancy rate, with 25 COVID patients and six in the ICU.

An individual Omicron case is likely to be milder than the previously dominant Delta variant.

A preliminary study from University of California-Berkeley and Kaiser Permanente found 53% lower risk of hospitalization with symptoms compared to Delta, a 74% lower risk of ICU admission, and a 91% lower mortality risk. Of those who were hospitalized with Omicron, their stay averaged 1.5 days, compared to five days with Delta.

Even with Omicron, vaccination — particularly with an added booster shot — still greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization or death. A CDC study released Friday showed boosters had been 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations and 82% effective against preventing trips to emergency rooms or urgent care centers.

In December, COVID-associated hospitalization was 44 times higher for unvaccinated 50- to 64-year-olds than those who had received additional or booster doses, and 49 times higher for those 65 and up, the CDC said. Figures for younger age groups were not available.

As of Wednesday, 56.8% of people across the Western U.P. were at least partially vaccinated.

Some providers have been seeing an increase in the number of people going in for their primary series of shots, Van Howe said. About a quarter of the population in the western U.P. has received their booster shot.

“We would like to do a lot better than that,” he said.

Van Howe said vaccination remains the best way for people to protect themselves and their neighbors.

“If our hospitals and emergency rooms are filled with patients with COVID, patients and people with other medical issues may have to wait longer for care,” he said.

Starting this week, people can register for four free testing kits per address at covidtests.gov. Rapid tests are also available at local clinics including the Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center, Van Howe said.

The WUPHD has gotten new lab equipment allowing it to process PCR tests as soon as the same day or next morning.

This week, the federal government announced 400 million N95 masks, which offer more protection against Omicron than cloth masks, would be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers around the country. Van Howe said he had not heard when masks might be arriving in the area.

Van Howe said the masks can safely withstand repeated use.

“I think you can use them until they’re getting pretty dirty or they start to fall apart,” he said. “I’ve got a couple I’ve been wearing all winter and they’ve held up.”

He also advised people to stay home if they are sick. With omicron, home tests may not register a positive until three or four days after someone begins showing symptoms, Van Howe said.

People who test positive are encouraged to isolate for five days from the start of your symptoms or if no symptoms, the day they took the test, the WUPHD said. They should also notify close contacts so they can quarantine. Isolation should only end once symptoms have improved and the person has had no fever for 24 hours. They should still mask for five more days.

Vaccinations can be scheduled with local providers by calling the WUPHD, physicians’ offices, pharmacies, or by visiting coppercountrystrong. com/vaccine.


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