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Health & Science
WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

Omicron peak could make January a bad month for COVID-19 in Northeast Ohio

A picture of the COVID virus.
PETE LINFORTH
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PIXABAY
Ohio is experiencing record numbers of COVID-19 cases as omicron become the dominant variant in the country.

Ohio is experiencing record cases of COVID-19, with omicron as the dominant variant of the virus. Hospitals are overburdened and help from the Ohio National Guard can’t come soon enough. As the virus continues to spread, we checked with Kent State University epidemiologist Tara Smith to get a better understanding of the omicron variant.

Tara Smith office
Tara Smith
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Tara Smith is an epidemiologist at Kent State University.

Where COVID-19 stands
It's hard to process right now the onslaught of news about COVID-19, omicron, the surge of cases in Northeast Ohio, record cases, record hospitalizations. Smith says COVID-19 is bad in Northeast Ohio. Cases have been increasing for the past month. Many local hospitals are either maxed out or beyond capacity. Employees are absent from work, while patients keep flooding in.

"We are not in a good place right now, and Ohio is one of the lowest vaccinated states," Smith said.

More widespread, less severe
This surge is due in part to the omicron variant. When the variant was first found in the United States, preliminary reports found that it's more contagious but less severe.

Smith says this still seems to be the case, but she cautions that the delta variant is still prevalent in Northeast Ohio.

"Looking at the statistics, it does seem like omicron is less severe overall."

Protection from vaccines
Smith says vaccines have had mixed results in preventing omicron. "With outright infection, like protection from becoming positive at all, omicron seems to be able to evade immunity better than any of our previous variants, so we are seeing more vaccinated people in this surge who are getting infected."

But, the vaccine still prevents severe disease, which could be why omicron appears to less severe than previous variants.

"In the vaccinated people, for most of them, it's much more like a cold or a mild respiratory infection," according to Smith.

Omicron symptoms
Smith says symptoms from omicron seem to be similar to those from other variants, but there is always a spectrum of symptoms, and not everyone who tests positive experiences the same thing.

"It seems that sore throat seems to be the first symptoms for a lot of people instead of a cough or something like that."

Masks
Smith says she uses KN-95 masks when she's out in public, which are more available than N-95s. She recommends checking Project N-95, which vets masks to verify they are not fake.

"Those are ones that are more protective. They're tight fitting. They tend to have like a nose bridge - a metal nose bridge that seals to your nose a little bit better, so they protect the wearer better than some of the cloth masks and things like that," Smith said.

When will omicron peak?
Smith says the hope is that the U.S. will soon see a peak of omicron and rapid decline like in South Africa where the variant was first detected.

"It does seem to be so transmissible that it is burning through the population pretty quickly, so... the silver lining is that hopefully this should peak soon. And then we'll kind of be on the downside of it hopefully in the latter half of January into February, at least in Ohio."

This leaves some wondering how much worse omicron can get before it peaks.

"I think it's going to be a really rough January."

Smith says this might be a step toward the pandemic becoming endemic, where COVID-19 rates would flatten out to an expected rate.

She says the goal now should be to build up enough immunity in the population to stop future surges of the virus from happening.

Tara Smith
Another variant of COVID-19 could cause a similar or worse spike than omicron.

“I hope that after omicron we will have enough immunity in the population to keep something like this from happening again, but all you need is another variant that has even more immune evasion properties than omicron, and we can be back at another bad place in six months or another year.”

Smith hopes numbers will improve in February.

Return to school
Students are returning to classrooms this week in Northeast Ohio – some without mask mandates.

Smith is worried about the potential spread in schools both with mask mandates and without. She says masks do a great job of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Tara Smith
She's unsure how schools will control transmission of omicron.

“But even with that, you have lunch, and they did really well in the fall with mask mandates. But that was with delta, which was less transmissible, and now with omicron and having unmasked lunches, I’m not sure how they’re going to control that.”

Smith expects omicron to spread widely between students and teachers in the coming weeks, especially in schools without mask mandates.

She says the best way to prevent infection in schools is to wear a tight-fitting mask, such as a KN-95. Despite vaccines being available for kids 5 and older, only 20% of kids ages 5 to 11 in Ohio are vaccinated.