Omicron variant detected in Pennsylvania. Here’s what you need to know.

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By Spotlight PA Staff

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HARRISBURG — Philadelphia health officials on Dec. 3 said a city resident had tested positive for the omicron variant of COVID-19, the first confirmed case in Pennsylvania.

The development was expected and is not a cause for concern, according to officials, but rather a reason to consider taking extra precautions and to get vaccinated or a booster shot.

Here’s what you need to know.

What do we know about omicron?

At the moment, much of what we know about the omicron variant is preliminary and subject to change. Scientists will likely be able to answer some key questions by mid-December.

The U.S. government has classified it as a “variant of concern,” meaning “there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility” and “more severe disease.”

One of the most pressing questions is whether omicron can evade current vaccines or immunity.

An analysis of coronavirus samples from South Africa indicated it is more likely to cause reinfection than the delta variant — a highly contagious strain that is responsible for most cases in the U.S. It’s important to note that the researchers’ work has not been peer-reviewed.

Early data also points to less severe infections, though that information is also far from definitive.

“More data are needed to know if omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants,” the CDC says on its website.

The variant had been detected in more than a dozen states as of Dec. 6.

What do we know about the Philadelphia case?

The city’s health department said the infected person is a man in his 30s, but did not provide additional details.

“It is not unexpected that we would see omicron here in Philadelphia,” Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said in a press release.

What do health officials say people should do?

Officials around the world are united in their No. 1 recommendation: Get vaccinated if you aren’t already, and if you are, get a booster shot.

Bettigole, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, also said masks, being outdoors, and social distancing are proven ways to protect against COVID-19.

What is the COVID-19 situation across PA?

As health professionals learn more about the omicron variant, they’re also dealing with infections caused by the aggressive delta variant, which emerged earlier this year.

Cases and hospitalizations are increasing throughout Pennsylvania, and some hospitals are fielding nearly as many cases as they did last winter, news outlets across the state report.

The 14-day average for hospitalizations is only slightly lower than it was this time last year, before vaccines were available to the general public, state data show. Of the 4,177 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Dec. 6, 879 adult patients were in intensive care units.

Hospitalizations at Excela facilities in Westmoreland County, for example, have been creeping up since October, the Tribune-Review reported. The majority of those patients — more than 90% — are unvaccinated.

Reports from across the state show that hospitals are stretched for resources as facilities from Butler to York delay some procedures in order to free up beds, while others struggle to reduce emergency room wait times.

This is in part because of an increase in COVID-19 cases and because there’s more demand for other services and procedures, Don Yealy, chief medical officer at UPMC, said during a news briefing last week.

Combined with staffing shortages, “this is a volatile period of time,” Yealy said.

Emergency room wait times at UPMC Altoona in Blair County, for example, were days long last week, the Altoona Mirror reported.

“Of course there’s longer waits now given all of those dynamics,” Yealy said when asked about those reports. “No one wants your care to be delayed. We don’t want that, you don’t want that.”

Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College — the only hospital in Centre County — temporarily closed its emergency department doors last Thursday and diverted patients, according to the Centre Daily Times.

Regular operations resumed Friday.

Geisinger facilities, which serve the central and northeastern parts of the state, are also experiencing packed emergency rooms, PennLive reported.

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