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Health officials warn of difficult months ahead as COVID-19 cases continue to spike

By Bob Conrad

Washoe County health officials today said the region – much like what the rest of the country is experiencing with the rapidly spreading omicron COVID-19 variant – is in for difficult months.

District Health Officer Kevin Dick said today the incredibly contagious omicron is now the predominant COVID strain in Washoe County. And while less severe, the variant is fueling the rapid rise of new cases that could once again strain hospital capacity.

WCHD officer Kevin Dick during a media briefing Jan. 5, 2022.

“The good news that is emerging about this variant is that it has been shown to affect mostly the upper respiratory system, and because of that, we don’t anticipate that we’re going to have as high a rate of people that are infected that end up hospitalized in the intensive care units,” Dick said. “We are concerned that even though there’s a smaller rate of severe cases, we could still have quite a strain on our hospital system coming.”

There are 61 confirmed omicron cases locally, and to date nobody has been hospitalized from the omicron variant. That could change, however, as more people contract the omicron variant.

“Based on the wastewater data that UNR has collected and analyzed, we can presume that almost all of the cases that are occurring in our community now are omicron,” Dick added. “We have [found] in those confirmed cases the age of the people that have been infected ranges from one to 70 years old.”

The unvaccinated continue to disproportionately be hospitalized, versus those who have been fully vaccinated, Dick said. “Because of the pure number of cases that are occurring, even though fewer of those are severe, there may still be more of those severe cases hitting our hospitals.”

“People should try to hunker down right now.”

Nearly 63% of the region is fully vaccinated, and nearly 3% of those who are vaccinated tested positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated.

“[It’s] a very small percentage of the vaccinated population, and as we’re hearing in the news, the vast majority of those that are hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 continue to be the unvaccinated portion of our population,” Dick said.

Region back in the ‘very high’ range for risk

New cases are attributed to travel and gatherings, and more than 400 new cases were reported Dec. 30, 2021.

The first omicron case in Washoe County was reported Dec. 20, but University of Nevada, Reno researcher Subhash Verma said omicron was detected in wastewater about a week earlier.

Samples collected at the end of November were mostly the delta variant. Since mid-December, omicron has become the predominant strain found in wastewater, Verma said. “Samples collected from [the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility] on Dec. 22 … [show that] 90-95% of the signatures are omicron.”

That’s a 10-fold increase in COVID-19 detection, county officials said. The region’s test positivity rate is now at 9% – up from 2.8% in June. To end mask mandates, Washoe County will have to be under 5% for two weeks.

“These numbers are alarming,” Dick said. “And I said a couple of weeks ago that we needed to be prepared for what’s coming.”

Dick stressed mask wearing – he said he’s double-masking – getting fully vaccinated, maintaining social distancing and working from home if possible are all recommended.

“People should try to hunker down right now,” he said.

City of Reno officials yesterday said they are going back to virtual meetings as the new spike of cases became evident this week. County officials said they have no plans to change their meeting protocols.

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