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Omicron now makes up roughly 45% of cases in RI, Health Dept. says

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Less than a week after suggesting that little of Rhode Island’s current surge in COVID-19 cases is being caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, the R.I. Health Department now says omicron is likely accounting for nearly half of all new infections.

Rhode Island continues to set new records for COVID-19 cases, twice reporting more than 4,000 new positive tests in a day over recent days, far more than ever seen before. But at a briefing last Thursday, Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott suggested only 10% of the current wave was omicron, surprising those who assumed the infectiousness of the new variant was driving the uptick.

“We could sustain case numbers through the middle or end of January that will well exceed the peak we have ever experienced throughout this entire pandemic,” she said.

On Tuesday, however, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the 10% estimate that was offered at the briefing dated back to mid-December, and is now out of date.

“The proportion of our infections that are omicron is now likely closer to 45%,” Joseph Wendelken said in an email. “This is a rough estimate.”

Multiple factors go into creating that estimate, he said, “including the rate of spread of the variants present in Rhode Island, our sequencing data, our case and testing data, and regional and national data.”

Health Department data shows the state has done genetic sequencing on 10,255 COVID-19 specimens over the course of the pandemic. More than half of those — 5,949 — were found to be the delta variant, while so far only 12 were found to be the omicron variant.

Nationally, the CDC has found omicron rapidly overtaking delta as the predominant variant in the country, with omicron’s share of sequenced cases rising from less than 1% to more than 90% during December. That has fueled suspicion that the variant is driving spread in Rhode Island, too.

Experts have pointed to increasing evidence that omicron is more contagious but less deadly than delta, citing the decoupling of case and hospitalization trends in places getting hard hit by the new variant.

“This does appear to be a milder strain of coronavirus, and we also have a lot of immunity in the population,” former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “I think places that have been hard-hit early — like the mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, New England, Florida, parts of the Pacific Northwest — may be two weeks away from peaking.”

Dr. Jay Schuur, physician-in-chief of emergency medicine at Rhode Island Hospital parent Lifespan, on Monday attributed a significant share of the current COVID uptick to omicron.

“We’re definitely seeing a rise in COVID cases,” Schuur told 12 News. “The very good news is because so many people in the state are vaccinated and a good number are boosted, we are seeing fewer patients who are very ill than we saw last winter. But the big challenge is that we’re facing that with fewer staff and therefore fewer beds to care for patients.”

“I’m concerned about the next couple of weeks,” he added.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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