17 cases of omicron variant confirmed in the Finger Lakes region

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The COVID-19 omicron variant is here. It may be less severe for a lot of us but it spreads easier and faster. That’s why health leaders are urging caution as you prepare to celebrate the holidays.

The UR Medicine lab sequenced 125 COVID-19 samples taken from patients during the first 15 days of December.

“The omicron variant was detected in 17 of the samples, 12 from Monroe County residents, one from Ontario county, one from Wayne county and the remainder were from residents out of state,” said Dr. Michael Apostolakos, the Chief Medical Officer at Strong and Highland Hospitals.

So, now that it is officially here, how do you best protect yourself? You might want to start by giving your mask another look.

“Because it spreads so easily, we need to wear masks that provide better protection,” Dr. Apostolakos said, “a simple cloth mask alone does not protect as well against Omicron, a surgical mask is better and a surgical mask covered by a cloth mask is even better than that.”

Doctors still recommend those who are unvaccinated get the vaccine, or those who are eligible, get the booster shot.

“It is likely that more of those who are vaccinated will develop COVID because of the omicron variant but do not conclude that the vaccine does not work, the vaccine continues to protect you and protect you from serious illness even if a breakthrough case occurs,” said Dr. Robert Mayo, the Chief Medical Officer for Rochester Regional Health.

Here’s something else you should know.

“The current monoclonal antibodies are not effective against the omicron variant,” Dr. Apostolakos explained.

But there is a different treatment that is.

“We received our first shipment today but again not enough to care for as many people that need the drug,” Dr. Apostolakos said.

The drug is called Sotrovimab.

“We are placing orders for it and we will be closely following other therapies that come out and utilizing them appropriately,” Dr. Mayo said.

The health systems request the drug from New York State. The State gets it from the federal government but so far, only about 55,000 doses of Sotrovimab have been allocated nationwide. Federal health officials have promised more shipments will arrive as soon as this week.

As COVID-19 numbers continue to increase in our community, so too does the demand on the contact tracing system in place.

“On top of that, a state-wide system outage occurred earlier this week which further slowed down the case investigation process,” explained Dr. Michael Mendoza, the Monroe County Health Commissioner.

Dr. Mendoza is encouraging anyone who tests positive to self-isolate and notify close contacts themselves instead of waiting for a call from a contact tracer.

When it comes to schools, “the case numbers are lower in children but that all reflects the previous variant, the Delta variant,” explains Dr. Mendoza, “we don’t have for now, any experience with Omicron in the schools other than the last week or so but even with that, the school numbers still seem to be reassuring.”

So for now, Monroe County Schools are planning to remain open after the holiday break.

“We don’t have concrete evidence to recommend otherwise so we are planning as though that will be the case,” Dr. Mendoza said.

As for our already over-crowded hospitals, “the evidence suggests that the omicron variant is probably less severe but it is so much more infectious that the sheer number of people infected may lead to as many people requiring hospitalization and that’s a real concern,” says Dr. Apostolakos.

It’s also hard to know what kind of impact the new variant could have on an already small health care staff.

“Because of the potential for a breakthrough with omicron we are at risk of having people out sick in higher numbers than anticipated so, we are concerned about that,” Dr. Mayo said.

“If they get infected with omicron, obviously they can’t work for 10 days and that could exacerbate a shortage of faculty and staff,” Dr. Apostolakos added.