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Omicron: What We Know About the New Variant in Miami

Around-the-block lines for COVID-19 tests. Postponed and canceled flights. Reports of virus outbreaks invading cruises, scaling back or outright nixing high-profile events, disrupting life, which had just started to feel normal again.

Owing to the highly contagious Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases are surging once again in South Florida and beyond. Omicron, which was first identified last month in South Africa, has quickly become the dominant strain in Miami-Dade County, prompting infections to increase exponentially and hospital beds to fill up once again.

“Anytime there’s a surge, our numbers go up significantly,” Dr. Hany Atallah, Jackson Memorial’s chief medical officer, tells New Times. “We’ve had enough surges at this point that, I hate to say, we’re getting more comfortable with it.”

According to the Florida Department of Health, coronavirus cases in Miami-Dade have more than quadrupled since the last weekly report, rising from 11,689 cases between December 10 and December 16 to 52,428 between December 17 and December 23.

Since mid-November, the county’s seven-day positivity rate soared from 1 percent to a whopping 24 percent. According to Miami-Dade’s most recent COVID-19 Dashboard Report, of the 1,316 COVID-19 patients admitted to local hospitals between December 16 and December 27, 873 (66 percent) were unvaccinated, 370 (28 percent) were vaccinated, and 73 (5 percent) were vaccinated with a booster. Twenty-six people are reported to have died from COVID-19 between December 20 and December 26 in the county.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF THE CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

At Jackson Health System, Miami-Dade’s public hospital conglomerate, the number of COVID-19 patients is drastically on the rise, from 47 patients in early December to 212 on Monday and 252 on Tuesday. In response, Jackson has updated its COVID-19 threat level to “high” and restricted visitation.

Of the 252 current COVID-positive patients at Jackson Health System, the vast majority — 83.7 percent (211 patients) — have not been vaccinated. Sixteen percent (41 patients) have been vaccinated, though it’s unclear how many had received a booster dose.

“If you’re vaccinated, the symptoms that you’re having, or how severe your illness becomes, is much less,” Atallah notes.

While Atallah explains that Omicron is “extraordinarily” contagious compared to previous variants — some health experts estimate it could be 25 to 50 percent more contagious than Delta — he’s noticed that it has resulted in fewer ICU admissions than previous variants.

“Obviously, still a few people go into the ICU,” he says, “but definitely less severe illness than we’ve seen in the past.”

Early data has shown diminished vaccine effectiveness with the Omicron variant. Atallah estimates that the vaccines are only about 70 percent effective against Omicron, whereas they were roughly 80 effective against Delta. (It’s been reported that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have more than 90 percent effectiveness against SARs CoV-2 six months after the second shot.)

However, several studies indicate that fully vaccinated people who received a booster shot have “strong protection” against Omicron.

Ninety-five percent of Miami-Dade County residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine and 80 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the county’s dashboard. Of the 80 percent of people who are fully vaccinated in Miami-Dade, 23 percent have received a booster dose.

Of the 80 percent of people who are fully vaccinated in Miami-Dade, 23 percent have received a booster dose.

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Atallah understands that many people are tired of masking up and adhering to certain precautions. He also understands how some people might not take the new variant as seriously, believing the symptoms are milder.

“It’s not necessarily if you’re young and healthy that you won’t get that sick, because you probably won’t,” he says. “The risk is that you’re going to give it to someone who also may be young and healthy, who then is going to give it to someone who’s not young and healthy.”

The latest surge in hospitalizations has taken a toll on Atallah and other healthcare workers at Jackson. He says they’re exhausted and experiencing déjà vu. So while he understands that he might sound repetitive, Atallah continues to encourage people to socially distance, get vaccinated, and wash their hands.

“If we really want to get over this, it’s really going to require everyone to be diligent about getting the vaccine,” he says. “It’s still not too late.”

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