Omicron variant overtakes Delta as dominant strand, leads to increased chances of switch to virtual learning


Photo by Xaviernau used with permission from Google Commons

Despite high vaccination rates county-wide, hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID patients infected with the Omicron variant.

Omicron is now the dominant strand of COVID-19 in the United States, accounting for 95% of new reported cases, according to an article from National Geographic. Severe symptoms like fever and loss of smell are less common in cases of Omicron, but symptoms set in more quickly. Omicron is significantly more transmissible than the Delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Both variants could produce symptoms like dry cough, headache, and fatigue but hospitalizations are significantly less likely to occur in fully vaccinated patients. Both asymptomatic and vaccinated patients are able to spread the disease to others, though, according to the CDC. Despite the decreased severity of the Omicron variant compared to Delta, hospitals remained overwhelmed by COVID patients, reports the New York Times. 

According to data from the New York Times, around 2,000 new cases are being reported each day in the county, the biggest uptick in cases ever in the pandemic, likely due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant. Despite 84.1% of county residents being completely vaccinated, the percentage of patients in the hospital with COVID is steadily increasing and there is “high utilization” of beds for COVID in hospitals, as reported by the Montgomery County COVID dashboard. 

The number of active cases in schools can be monitored on the MCPS COVID Dashboard. Thirty-two new active cases were reported on Jan. 11 alone at Wootton and over 2,500 new cases were reported county-wide in schools in the 24-hour period. Because of this rapid spread, the county will be providing every student with KN-95 masks, which are proven to be effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Students and staff also have the option to opt-in to weekly PCR testing.

All students were also given two rapid tests during their advisory period on Monday, Jan. 10, and were encouraged to report their results (positive or negative) to the MCPS COVID-19 Reporting From. These rapid antigen tests are 78.9% accurate at detecting COVID and false negatives are more likely than false positives, according to data from a 2021 study. 

The county has decided to no longer use the 5% infection threshold to determine whether schools should switch to online learning. Whether a certain school should switch virtual will be decided on a case-by-case basis by MCPS and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “Factors considered will continue to include the number of students and staff who have tested positive; the number of students in quarantine; the number of staff absent for COVID-related reasons; and the level of spread of the virus in the school,” Interim Superintendent of Schools Monifa B. McKnight said in a community letter. 

Given the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the high vaccination status of students and county residents, and the relatively high recovery rate for the variant, it is unlikely that a switch to virtual school would be indefinite. The best protection against the virus remains to be wearing masks correctly (KN-95 if possible), eating outside and staying home if you don’t feel well.