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Fast-spreading omicron expected to increase number of COVID-19 cases in Hall
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Coronavirus cases at Northeast Georgia Medical Center are expected to increase with the surging Omicron variant. Above, staff work in the COVID critical care unit of the Gainesville hospital Friday, March 12, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Local health officials were already gearing up for another winter wave of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, the rapid spread of the omicron variant raises even more fears. 

Omicron is now the dominant variant of the coronavirus in the United States, accounting for 73% of new cases last week, according to federal health officials. The national rate suggests that omicron was responsible for more than 650,000 coronavirus infections last week. 

“Given the rapid transmissibility of the omicron variant, the current proportion of omicron in Georgia is likely similar to that of the national estimate, and presumably will account for all new COVID cases in the state in the coming weeks,” according to a press release from the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

DPH warned Tuesday afternoon that “omicron is moving fast” and urged Georgians to “become fully vaccinated and get a booster for better protection against variants.” 

The Centers for Disease Control says breakthrough infections of omicron are likely to occur in those who are fully vaccinated. However, vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death. Preliminary data suggest that omicron may cause less severe illness than prior variants. 

“Some reports are indicating that it is highly transmissible,” Marie Brown, District 2 epidemiologist for DPH, wrote in an email, “but it is still hard to compare to other variants until we know more about it.”

John Delzell, incident commander at the Northeast Georgia Health System, said local hospitals are still in the midst of the delta wave. 

“Somebody asked me a couple of days ago if we thought (the rise in cases) was from Thanksgiving,” Delzell said. “I'm sure the holiday things don't help because when you get people together, they're more likely to get exposed. But it's been going on since even before Thanksgiving. It’s never really gone down.” 

NGHS recorded 76 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Monday, up from 31 a few weeks ago. 

Delzell said the next wave may hit Northeast Georgia harder than other areas with higher vaccination rates. Only 46% of Hall County residents are fully vaccinated, according to DPH data. 

When asked how the omicron wave may compare to delta, he said, “If I had to guess, I would say I don't think it'll be worse than delta. I think it's likely that it will be similar.” At the peak of the delta wave, local hospitals were full and nurses were pushed to their breaking point

“Omicron cases are likely to lead to a national surge in the coming weeks with peak daily numbers of new infections that could exceed previous peaks ... as soon as January,” according to an assessment Monday by the Centers for Disease Control. 

NGHS modeling has predicted a similar surge locally, and the emergence of omicron could make matters worse. 

“Our concern is, every time we have a new variant, there's a possibility that it will be more severe, it'll cause worse infections or maybe it spreads faster,” Delzell said. “So I think we're always cautious about it every time it starts.” 

Delzell said NGHS has enough nurses to deal with another wave, but they are “still working really hard to hire more nurses” amid a national shortage. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we've got enough nurses to staff the beds and take care of the community.” 

When asked what it’s like preparing for yet another wave while many people refuse to get vaccinated, he said: “It does drive you a little crazy.” As a family doctor, he knows how difficult it can be to convince patients to change their behaviors. Quitting smoking is hard, he said, but what’s frustrating in this case is that getting vaccinated is “so simple.” 

Pandemics will continue to occur, he said, “because we're not able to get people vaccinated, and that's kind of sad, I think.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.