West Virginia health leaders warily eye yet another covid-19 threat

West Virginia leaders have warned for weeks about persistent covid numbers along with impending factors like holiday gatherings and cold weather. Now there is yet another threat — a new covid variation gaining an international foothold, appearing to be more transmissible than anything that has come before it.

“There is concern that  this new variant demonstrates one, that covid’s not over but two, it just demonstrates the capability the virus still has to try to navigate our immune response,” Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s top covid-19 adviser, said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

The mutated form of covid, now called the omicron variant, was first identified in South Africa, where cases have risen sharply. But it now has also been identified in countries around the world, including Canada.

The United States has restricted travel to South Africa and seven other countries in an attempt to slow the spread to this country.

There is much that scientists are still trying to determine, including how transmissible the variant truly is, whether it causes more serious health effects and whether current vaccines will be effective in guarding against it.

In part, the concern is how the earlier delta variant seemed to revive and extend the pandemic when it appeared months ago. No one wants a repeat of that.

“At least early in this assessment in South Africa, the omicron variant has been very able in certain areas of South Africa to outcompete delta, which is a concern for us because delta, as you know, has been the dominant virus for the past several months,” Marsh said.

But Marsh and others have taken note of early indications that omicron may actually lead to a milder disease, “but of course we don’t want to let our guard down and say it’s no big deal; but that at least gives us some encouraging news that this variant may not be the absolute killer that we’ve seen with the delta variant.”

Marsh and other medical experts have encouraged people to guard against any version of covid-19 by getting vaccinated or seeking a booster.

President Joe Biden addressed the nation today about omicron and emphasized vaccination and booster shots.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists and we’re learning more every single day — and we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

The best protection is vaccination, Biden said.

“I know you’re tired of hearing me say this: The best protection against this variant or any of the variants out there is getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot,” he said. “Most Americans are fully vaccinated but not yet boosted.”

If the new variant proves resistant to the current vaccines, Biden said, the nation will accelerate the development of new vaccines. “We do not yet believe that additional measures are needed,” he said, “but so that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Modern and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.”

In West Virginia, just 54 percent of the vaccine-eligible population, ages 5 and up, is considered fully-vaccinated, according to state figures. 

Gov. Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice and his advisers have been emphasizing vaccines and boosters as ways to head off the worst effects of the virus.

“Surely we can’t put up with this. Surely we can’t sit back and say this is the new normal,” Justice said during a briefing last week. “The only thing we can do is just keep encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

West Virginia stood at 5,991 active cases of covid-19 today.

There were 566 covid-19 patients in West Virginia hospitals. There were 182 in intensive care units and 104 who need the help of ventilators to breathe.

Each of those categories reflecting the worst health effects of covid-19 has been on the rise.

Marsh urged protection through vaccination.

“We have incredibly effective and safe treatment, and that treatment is immunization,” Marsh said. “And we know that full immunization plus boost should give us enough antibody protection that we should be protected against the variant just like the delta variant and others.”

But, he said, “it also tells us the covid-19 virus is not done with us yet.”





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