COVID-19: Omicron variant is 'second-most contagious virus on the planet'

·9 min read

The omicron variant of the coronavirus is now the second-most contagious known disease, behind only measles, according to a Cleveland doctor.

“The thing to know about this variant is that it is so much more contagious,” said Dr. Claudia Hoyen, co-director of infection control for University Hospitals. “It is the second-most contagious virus on the planet currently. And so it's just very important for people to understand that we are in a much different position than we actually even were two weeks ago.”

Hoyen was one of several medical professionals who spoke during a press conference Tuesday hosted by Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals as the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage Northeast Ohio, driven by concurrent surges of the delta and omicron variants, leaving hospitals overcrowded and overwhelmed and health care workers exhausted.

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“It is really spreading like a wildfire across Northeast Ohio,” Hoyen said.

Hoyen said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday that 73% of the new cases of COVID-19 within the U.S. are the omicron variant, a massive jump from 13% the previous week.

“It seems to be doubling every two to three days, and so we're assuming here in Northeast Ohio, we will be at a majority of cases with the new variant probably shortly after Christmas and into the upcoming weeks,” she said.

Hoyen said the medical community is still learning about the omicron variant.

“We all need to be on guard because of the potential number of people getting infected. Even if it turns out that this virus does not cause a severe disease in people — we don't know that right now, that information is still forthcoming — we must assume that it is as serious as delta,” she said. “If that's the case, we are going to be overrun.”

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COVID-19 surge in Northeast Ohio

Tuesday’s press conference came a day after the announcement that Cuyahoga County ranks third for the highest case rate per 100,000 people in the nation, according to a report based on CDC data. The county has 1,259 cases per 100,000 and a positivity test rate of 29%. Summit's rate is 692 with a 23% positivity rate.

Why are things so bad in Northeast Ohio?

Dr. Daniel Simon, president of academic and external affairs and chief scientific officer with University Hospitals, listed several factors: the omicron variant; the weather leading to people spending more time indoors, which is made worse if people aren’t wearing masks, including during the holidays; Ohio’s vaccination rates being lower than the national averages; low levels of boosting; and pandemic fatigue from people tired of wearing masks and social distancing.

Hoyen added that Northeast Ohio’s location is contributing to the severity of the pandemic here.

“The timing for Northeast Ohio couldn't have been worse,” she said. “If you think about how the delta strain transversed our country over the months, we know that it started in the south and then went north. As we know, here in Ohio, we are the north coast of America, and so we were the last place for delta to come.”

That means that we were in the midst of our delta surge when omicron arrived.

COVID-19 patients at Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals

Simon said there are 394 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the UH system, with 19% in the ICU.

The hospital system includes UH Portage Medical Center in Ravenna.

“We have more COVID-positive patients now in our hospitals than ever before,” said Simon, who said that the mortality rate for COVID-19 for people intubated in an ICU exceeds 30% to 50%.

Dr. Raed Dweik, chair of the Cleveland Clinic Respiratory Institute, said there are more than 850 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Cleveland Clinic system, with more than a quarter in ICUs.

The Cleveland Clinic's Akron/Canton-area facilities include Akron General and Medina and Mercy hospitals.

He emphasized that 80% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated, and of those in the ICU, 90% are not vaccinated.

Those who are vaccinated but in the hospital or ICU are “the vaccinated vulnerable,” he said. They have immune system issues, like cancer, transplant medications or immune deficiency.

Simon said the positive test rate at University Hospitals is about 30%.

At the Cleveland Clinic, Dweik said that about two weeks ago, the rate of positive tests for those who had symptoms was about 25%. Now it's doubled to 50%. About 20% of those without symptoms were testing positive. Now, it’s also doubled to 40%. But he said the “most alarming” statistic is that the testing positivity rate for pre-surgical testing was less than 1%, but it’s now approaching 10%.

Hoyen said the stress on the medical system has led to delays in procedures and surgeries, which in turn leads to delays in diagnoses that can affect people’s health.

“This has been 22 months of this pandemic, and it is taking a toll,” she said.

Ohio health care workers overwhelmed

Shannon Pengel, chief nursing officer at Cleveland Clinic main campus, said health care workers are “really struggling.” They’re working overtime, having to handle higher patient ratios and treating patients who are younger and “our age,” which Pengel said takes an additional emotional toll.

She noted the challenges of having to change personal protective equipment every time they enter and leave a different patient’s room.

They work to connect patients to their families virtually but become the family members of patients who can’t have their family by their side “at their darkest hours” as they take their last breath, which is emotionally hard on the caregivers.

And when patients do die, caregivers try to create keepsakes for their loved ones, like thumbprint ornaments.

“The emotional burden that this has put on our caregivers and emotional exhaustion is beginning to show,” Pengel said. “All of us want this to be over. All of us want to get back to normal.”

Pengel also said although the pandemic has led to “incredible amounts of teamwork and caregivers coming together to do their best,” the nursing profession is dealing with higher levels of burnout, with nurses leaving the bedside to take other professions, including travel nursing, and retiring at higher rates.

Ohio National Guard helping with COVID-19 testing

One issue several of the health care workers mentioned is people coming to emergency departments and urgent cares to get tested. They don’t need urgent or emergency care, but because they’re there waiting to get tested, they’re taking away time and space for true emergencies, like heart attacks or strokes.

To help, University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic opened a joint drive-thru testing site at the garage of the W.O. Walker Building in Cleveland, with the Ohio National Guarding offering support at the site. To register, visit mako.exchange/scheduler/select-state/, select “Ohio,” then search for the Walker Building.

COVID-19 in Ohio: Ohio reports record number of new COVID-19 cases; Ohio National Guard prepares to help hospitals

“These patients who are waiting in line today in the drive-thru were the patients that were taking up spots in our emergency room and our urgent cares, taking away the time that our doctors could focus on patients who were sicker, requiring admission,” Simon said.

Pengel said there are also discussions underway about other ways the National Guard can be used, noting that there are also shortages in food service and environmental services.

Omicron surge affecting mothers, kids, babies

Stephanie Harper, a clinical nurse in OB/GYN at UH MacDonald Hospital for Women, was initially hesitant to get the vaccine.

“For me personally, I felt like it all happened so fast. I was concerned is it safe? What are the long-term effects?” she said. “And then obviously as minorities, we have this mistrust in the medical community and in medicine, and this kind of felt experimental and kind of took us back to our history.”

But Harper, a mom of two, saw patients coming in sicker. She also said she realized the long-term effects of having COVID-19 are also unknown.

“What the data did show for me was that vaccination improved outcomes, and that was important to me … so I did indeed decide to get vaccinated,” said Harper, who said “we are getting bombarded in the office with COVID calls, COVID symptoms, and on labor and delivery as well.”

Harper said the vaccination is strongly recommend in pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

Hoyen said studies across the country have shown that COVID-19 is leading to an increase in stillbirths. She said she believes that’s the case locally, too.

In Mississippi, the rate of stillbirths in women who had COVID-19 is four times that of a normal pregnancy, she said.

Hoyen said cases are also surging among children. She said compared to this summer, there are often 10 to 15 times the number of children admitted with COVID-19.

She also said there are higher numbers of children being seen with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, a condition in which different body parts, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, become inflamed, according to the CDC. Many children who develop the condition had COVID-19 or had been around someone who had it.

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Pfizer's Paxlovid antiviral

Simon said that “a new tool in the toolbox” is Pfizer's Paxlovid antiviral, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize this week.

“I think that there's no question that given before day three to five, twice a day for five days, we're seeing an 89% reduction in the clinical studies of symptomatic COVID requiring hospitalization or death,” he said. “That's a game changer.”

He said it’s effective against all known variants, including delta and omicron.

As they have continued to do, the health care workers urged people to get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks, wash their hands and social distance.

“The most effective means of preventing hospitalization, severe disease and ending up in an intensive care unit is vaccination and boosting,” Simon said. “Please vaccinate. Everybody talk to your friends, talk to your family, and just reconsider if you haven't made that decision to vaccinate yet.”

Contact Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills at emills@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter @EmilyMills818.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Northeast Ohio doctor: Omicron variant 'second-most contagious virus'