Health officials say they’re “worried” about Omicron variant

MEDFORD, Ore. — The Omicron may not be officially in Southern Oregon yet, but health officials in Jackson County are gearing up for the worst.

“What we’re really worried about is what’s going to happen with omicron and sort of the inevitability of a large number of cases,” Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County Public Health Officer, said.

He says Omicron is more contagious than the Delta variant. Data suggest it’s three times more transmissible but it seems symptoms are largely not as severe.

“Even if the Omicron variant produces less severe disease,” Dr. Shames said, “The sheer numbers are going to really greatly impact our health care system.”

Oregon Health and Science University released its covid-19 forecast on Friday. It shows cases going up significantly and hospitalizations reaching levels we saw over the summer when the Delta variant surged.

Shames says this will continue to overload an already overwhelmed system.

“Just in these last couple of days, we saw more people in the ICU, the number of people on ventilators, the capacity is pretty low and we’ve got a lot of people sitting in the hospital who can’t get discharged.”

Right now, Shames says we’re basically sitting in anticipation, waiting for the surge to hit.

One way health officials keep track of the Omicron variant is through wastewater testing at Oregon State University.

“With Omicron, given what we know about it and its increased transmissibility, I would suspect that once we do detect it in the wastewater, we’d expect it to increase and spread fairly quickly,” Tyler Radniecke, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at OSU, said.

Officials can’t predict the future of the virus, but they say there is one thing they do expect to happen.

“Sooner or later, everyone is going to get covid,” Dr. Shames said. “So the real question is, how serious of a disease do you want?”

As of Monday, none of the cases in Jackson County have come back as Omicron. Dr. Shames says he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already in our region though.

Radniecke says they usually run about two weeks behind, so although there have been cases of Omicron in Oregon, it hasn’t shown up in their testing.

There are five cities in Southern Oregon participating in the OSU wastewater testing program. That includes Medford, Ashland, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls and Roseburg.


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Blakely McHugh
Blakely McHugh is co-anchor of NBC5 News at Sunrise and spokesperson for In This Together, a suicide prevention initiative. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Blakely is a native of San Diego, CA. Blakely is excited to be in southern Oregon, a place that gets all the seasons and has similar temperatures to Arizona in the summer! When she’s not at work, you can find her relaxing at home watching TV and cuddling with her cat, Dallas. She also enjoys trying new places to eat and exploring the outdoors. Blakely loves meeting new people so if you see her out and about, say “hi!”
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