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Cullen: Omicron inevitably 'dominant' in Pima County; COVID cases will rise with holiday gatherings

'Now is not the time to decrease your vigilance,' Health Dep't head says

Even though Pima County is seeing early signs of a downward trend in new COVID infections, the number of new reported cases is expected to increase in the coming weeks, due to people spreading the virus during holiday gatherings.

The Omicron strain, named a “variant of concern” last week by the World Health Organization, is expected to become dominant here as it spreads, but Pima health officials said vaccines and boosters should remain effective as they did against Delta infections.

Despite somewhat lower numbers of recent new cases, Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, said Wednesday “now is not the time to decrease your vigilance” as she continued to encourage vaccinations, booster shots and wearing masks indoors in public places.

“Now is the time to get your booster or get vaccinated fully... cases will rise,” she told reporters during a virtual press conference. “As we go to the holiday season, we know more people will gather, we know there will be more social events... there are many, many events in the community that are scheduled for the next four to six weeks.”

The main mitigation strategy, Cullen said, is masking and social distancing.

The Health Department sequences up to 15 percent of COVID-positive PCR tests through the ​​Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, to determine which strains are infecting local residents, and the Delta variant still accounts for 99 percent of the COVID detected in the county.

COVID vaccines and boosters have been effective in preventing the spread of Delta and causing serious illness from the virus, Cullen said, but there is "little insight right now into whether there will be decreased efficacy with the current vaccine against Omicron, and given that we don't know, I don't think now is the time to be hesitant."

"The vaccination series and the boosters are highly effective against the Delta variant," she said. "When Omicron comes into the county, it will come in with, I believe, a similar pattern to what we saw with Delta, which means that within four, six, eight, 10 weeks we will see a transition from Delta to Omicron...now is the time to get your booster or get vaccinated fully."

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The first confirmed Omicron-infected person in the United States was confirmed Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control.

Infections and caseload

Arizona reported 3,163 new cases of COVID on Wednesday and 43 new deaths from the virus. Pima County reported 238 cases and one new death.

Like every county in Arizona, Pima County is still an area of “high” transmission, which means there are more than 100 new cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period, according to the CDC.

However, the designation does little to reflect the situation countywide, Cullen has said recently, because Pima County has been more than three times above that rate for more than a month. The rate in Pima County is currently 323 new cases per 100,000 people, which is a decrease from a more-than-400 rate two weeks ago, but there has been a delay in lab reporting, Cullen said.

The numbers of daily new cases and deaths have decreased from previous weeks, though Cullen said two weeks ago that the county is entering a new, fifth surge of cases. Because of the delay in lab reports and short timeframe, Cullen said she can’t say that the decrease will continue. The numbers could stay where they are, she said.

“I have no indication that our caseload truly is decreasing, but if you look at these numbers it would appear that we are stabilizing,” she said. “I would not put in any faith in that we are seeing a trend that will persist at this point.”

Symptoms of COVID start to show seven to 14 days after contracting the virus, so Cullen said that it’s still too soon to see the effects of Thanksgiving gatherings.

Hospitals beds in the county also continue to be near full capacity, which Cullen said indicates that “we aren’t in the midst of a lull” in COVID infections. As of Wednesday morning, the county reported that only 2 percent of ICU beds — just eight in all local hospitals — were available. The county has had less than 5 percent ICU bed availability for the past 42 days, she said.

Vaccines and testing

Vaccination rates are increasing slowly. Slightly more than 61 percent of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated. The older-than-65 population in the county is almost entirely vaccinated as 100 percent have at least one dose. The older-than-18 county population is 72 percent fully vaccinated, and the older-than-12 county population is 71 percent fully vaccinated.

Wednesday is also the deadline for city of Tucson employees to be vaccinated or to face termination. Last Tuesday, the city reported that 95 percent of city employees were in compliance with either a vaccination, medical exemption or religious accommodation.

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Other large employers in Tucson and Pima County have vaccine deadlines approaching for their employees. Both the University of Arizona and Pima Community college have their vaccine deadlines in January.

On Wednesday, the county will start offering free vaccines at the Tucson Convention Center at 260 S. Church Ave., in the Tucson Convention Center East Lobby. They’ll operate Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m, and offer free parking, with all three vaccines and booster brands and pediatric shots for kids 5-11.

The county is also expanding COVID testing hours at their testing centers and to continue distributing more self-tests. There already is an increase in the number of self tests being sent out to the community, Cullen said.

About 14 percent of COVID tests in the county are confirming infections as of Wednesday, according to the CDC. This is a slightly higher rate than in previous weeks, as it’s held at around 13 percent through November.

Breakthrough cases, or COVID infection of people who are already vaccinated, account for about 26 percent of the current caseload, but those people did not have their boosters, Cullen said. Infections of kids 18 and younger also account for a large share of the caseload, she said.

Omicron

PCHD isn’t aware of any Omicron in the community yet, but they’re monitoring the spread of the new “variant of concern” hour-by-hour, Cullen said.

“There’s no reason to think we’re special,” she said, speaking before the CDC confirmed the California case. “I have no reason to think Omicron is not in the U.S. I just think we haven't found it yet...I worry that it could be here (in Pima County).”

The spread of the Omicron variant in Southern Africa became news just after Thanksgiving as the Biden administration put a travel ban on several countries in the region and the WHO declared the virus strain to be the first “variant of concern” since Delta.

PCHD was in contact with TGen in Flagstaff shortly after those developments to ask if their labs can detect the new variant, and the answer was yes, Cullen said.

Rapid PCR testing will identify a sample as COVID, but the sequencing will take place at TGen, which is already doing sequencing from around the state and looking for Omicron.

Cullen looked back to when Delta was first reported in Pima County. Single-digit cases of Delta were reported in the county first, followed by double digits then 50 cases before a sudden escalation in infections with that variant happened, she said.

“I believe that when Omicron does come into the county, we’ll see a few cases and then, if it is true that it is more transmissible, we should see a similar pattern to what we saw with Delta,” she said. “Which means Omicron will become dominant.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. Theresa Cullen (pictured in this May file photo) talked to reporters on Wednesday about the Omicron variant and the decrease in the COVID cases and infection rate during the past week.