Omicron Variant Found in West Alabama Resident; State’s COVID-19 Numbers on Increase

Christmastime is here, and now the omicron variant of COVID-19 is as well.

The Alabama Department of Public Health announced Thursday that the fast-spreading variant, first reported in November in southern parts of Africa, has been found in a patient in Alabama.

The ADPH was vague on details because of federal privacy laws but did say that the infected person was tested after noticing symptoms earlier in December. The resident had not traveled outside the state recently and lives somewhere in the West Central Public Health District — an area that includes Tuscaloosa, Bibb, Walker, Lamar, Fayette, Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Hale, Perry and Chilton counties.

Omicron arrives as COVID numbers in the state already have started to rise. Alabama and Jefferson County both were on the cusp of dropping into the ‘low’ category for community transmission just a month ago. Now both are listed in the substantial transmission category, the third-highest of four risk levels.

Under health department recommendations, the change means that everyone, even those who are fully vaccinated, are advised to wear masks in public indoor settings. Health officials also have stepped up their efforts to encourage those who are not vaccinated to get a vaccine.

Surrounding Jefferson County are several counties classified as being at high risk of community transmission, which is the worst of the four categories. Blount, St. Clair and Walker counties have all reached that category. In each of those counties, the positivity rate, which measures the percentage of COVID tests that return a positive result, is over 10%. Blount tops out with a positivity rate of 15.7%.

Shelby County is in the substantial category, along with the state and Jefferson County.

Omicron Fears

The omicron variant has moved rapidly throughout the world and is considered to be much more contagious than previous COVID variants, including the delta variant that currently dominates infections in the United States. That situation is predicted to change soon by many public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Joe Biden.

CNBC reported Thursday that Fauci told an online conference with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, “It is the most transmissible virus of COVID that we had to deal with thus far. It will soon become dominant here. That’s one thing we know.”

A newly released study by the University of Hong Kong shows that omicron spreads 70 times faster in human bronchial tubes than either delta or the original COVID variant, according to a report Thursday in USA Today.

COVID Rising in Alabama

In BirminghamWatch’s periodic analysis of the spread of COVID throughout the state, the number of daily new cases has more than doubled since the end of November, and hospitalizations are up by 16% in the same period.

The 7-day moving average of new COVID cases reached 600.86 per day as of Thursday, up from 511.57 a week prior. The average’s recent low of 283 per day was set on Nov. 30, and the current average is up 112% from that low.

However, the ADPH reported that 861 additional cases were listed in Tuesday’s new cases to correct a technical error that caused those cases to not be reported from March 23 to Dec. 6. BirminghamWatch has adjusted the numbers used to calculate averages and recent totals to account for the errors.

The longer-term 14-day average of new cases also is increasing at a brisk pace. After bottoming out at 376.14 on Nov. 30, Thursday’s average was up to 556.21. That’s a climb of 47.8% over that period and up 28.6% over the mark from a week ago.

The per-capita rate is now up to 11.95 new daily cases per 100,000 inhabitants, after a low of 5.63 on Nov. 30. The positivity rate has increased from 5.4% to 7% statewide in the past seven days.

In total, 855,692 cases of COVID have been reported since pandemic records began on March 13, 2020.

Deaths attributed to the virus also are on a steady increase, On Thursday, the 7-day average of deaths per day stood at 16.71 (117 total deaths for the period), compared to 6.57 on Nov. 9.

The statewide COVID death toll is now up to 16,320 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Hospitalization numbers are rising as well, with 374 beds occupied by COVID patients compared to 334 a week ago.

Jefferson County reported a positivity rate of 5.5% and eight deaths due to COVID in the past week. The county’s cumulative death toll is up to 2,012. There have been 535 new cases of the virus reported in the week ending Wednesday, but it’s unclear whether that figure includes any older cases from the reporting error corrected Tuesday.

BirminghamWatch uses data for its analyses provided by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama Hospital Association.