RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – State health officials warned Monday that the omicron variant of COVID-19 could lead to record-setting daily case numbers in North Carolina, as they urged people to get tested before holiday gatherings and to get their booster shots.
Health and Human Services Sec. Dr. Mandy Cohen said the new variant has already been detected in hospital systems across the state and is likely to become the dominant strain early next year.
“The newest variant of COVID-19, omicron, is the most contagious we’ve seen yet and will likely set record-high daily case numbers in the coming weeks,” she said. “I think we could see as many as 10,000 cases a day at the peak. It is that infectious. And so, we need to make sure that we are acting now.”
Daily cases peaked at about 8,600 during this summer’s surge tied to the Delta variant and exceeded 10,000 on a few days in January, according to data from NC DHHS.
“And I urge everyone who’s been vaccinated to get your booster as you are eligible. Do not wait,” Dr. Cohen said. “omicron will cause the most suffering among those, in particular, who are not vaccinated.”
Dr. Cohen noted some monoclonal antibody treatments in use currently are not as effective at treating the omicron variant. While more effective treatments are in development and becoming available, she noted supply initially will be low and may not be more widely available until late January or early February.
“We’re gonna be in January with a very contagious virus without a treatment that really works. But, we do have vaccines and boosters,” she said.
With the holiday season underway, Cohen urged people only to travel if they are fully vaccinated and have received the booster shot if they are eligible.
“We are certainly planning to see additional strain on our hospitals. It’s why we are working with our hospitals to be ready,” she said.
Dr. Julie Swann, an expert on health systems at NC State University, has been working with a team of researchers funded by the CDC to provide projections about the impacts of COVID-19.
The group warned that omicron could lead to record numbers of people in the hospital due to COVID-19, as much as 2.5 to six times higher than the previous peak if booster shots are not more widely used.
“We’ve looked at many different scenarios on what can happen. In most of these scenarios, there is a large hospitalization surge,” said Swann, who is head of the Fitts Dept. of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State. “If we gave boosters to 50 percent of the people who are eligible for it, then we could greatly reduce that hospitalization surge.”
Gov. Cooper said as of Monday about 38 percent of those who are eligible to receive booster shots have done so.
Swann’s team noted that mask usage could also bring down the projections on peak hospitalizations by 30 to 60 percent.
She urged people who are eligible not to wait until after the holidays to get the booster shot.
“If you wait until after the holidays, that may not be able to protect you from the large wave that may be coming with the omicron variant,” she said. “It could come in early- to mid-January. It could be postponed until February if we manage to slow things down.”
She anticipates states with larger cities and the busiest airports to see the effects of the omicron surge before North Carolina, but says that impact will likely be felt in the Tar Heel State about a week later.
“Doctors and nurses have been on the frontline of this pandemic from the beginning, and they are just exhausted. We need to do everything we can to make sure they aren’t further overloaded like they have been,” she said. “I hope that we’re wrong, but I can tell you we talked to a lot of the modelers and three-fourths of the scenarios look really bad.”