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Omicron variant confirmed in several Kentucky counties

A person queues to be tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday. The omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, has been confirmed in several countries.
Jerome Delay
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A person queues to be tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday. The omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, has been confirmed in several countries.

The omicron variant has now been detected in Kenton, Campbell, Fayette and Jefferson counties, either via clinical test or wastewater sample. 

Dr. Steven Stack, the commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Public Health, explained that omicron is more transmissible than any virus seen recently.

“To put this in perspective, one person who gets influenza may infect one to two other people,” Stack said. “The delta variant really escalated COVID’s transmissibility, and one person with the delta variant may infect up to five other people under the right situations.

“It may be that one person with omicron could infect up to 18 to 20 additional people.”

With that type of high-level transmissibility, Stack believes it won’t be long before omicron becomes the dominant variant in Kentucky.

Within a few weeks, Stack said that omicron could account for half or more of all COVID cases in the commonwealth.

“And just like delta wiped out the other competitors for the variants in about  two months, this one could do the same thing in a month or less,” Stack said. 

In Jefferson County, omicron has only been detected in wastewater so far. Louisville wastewater is tested by the University of Louisville in partnership with MSD.

Dr. Ted Smith is the director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil in U of L Envirome Institute which does the testing. 

“This work is really one piece of information in a puzzle,” Smith said. “It’s important for us to know how quickly this virus, this strain moves through our community and hopefully anticipate the level of activity for the healthcare system or the school system.”

Stack reaffirmed calls for people to get their vaccines, whether that be their first or second dose or a booster.

“In some counties, the portion of people vaccinated is less than one in three,” Stack said. “Folks that’s a recipe for disaster particularly with something like omicron because if it sweeps through your community, it will hit everybody and hit quickly.”

Stack said that 62% of Kentuckians have completed their vaccine series, but only 17% have received a booster. He stressed that people who are eligible should get their booster to both help mitigate the spread and reduce chances of severe illness if infected.

He also stressed that going into the holiday, people gathering should ensure that everyone is vaccinated and has recent negative tests.  

Tornado-ravaged areas could face omicron threat

The omicron variant poses an even larger threat of spread in areas of the state still recovering from last weekend’s storms and tornadoes. Thousands in that region are without power and still underwater boil advisory, making sanitation efforts more difficult.

Gov. Andy Beshear said that hospital preparation is key in those areas when it comes to addressing omicron in Western Kentucky. 

“What we know is that number of infected is gonna much higher, much much higher,” Beshear said. “Hospitalization is gonna be much more telling as we move forward.”

Stack said that on a positive note, omicron appears to cause less severe illness than other variants. However, its high transmissibility still makes it a concern moving forward.

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