MONTGOMERY — Alabama confirmed its first case of the swift-moving omicron variant of the coronavirus Thursday, a development that was expected as the latest mutation spreads in the United States, the state health officer said.

The Alabama Department of Public Health said the variant was discovered in a resident of the state's West Central Public Health District. The person had mild symptoms and had not traveled outside Alabama.

“We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world. Alabamians know what to do to keep each other safe now — get the vaccine, get tested, wear a mask indoors, and get a booster. Together, we can fight this virus and help keep our residents safe," State Health Officer Scott Harris said in a statement.

About 42% of Morgan County residents are fully vaccinated. The vaccination rate is about 38% in Lawrence County and 43% in Limestone County, according to Alabama Department of Public Health data.

The positivity rates over the last week for Morgan County (10.1%) and Lawrence County (10.4%) mean they are two of the 15 counties in the state designated as having the highest levels of coronavirus transmission. Morgan County is averaging about 18 new cases per day and Lawrence is averaging about two. With a 6.7% positivity rate, Limestone County is averaging about nine new cases per day.

Harris said Alabama officials had presumed the omicron variant was in Alabama since it had been confirmed in neighboring states and much of the country.

Harris told The Associated Press on Thursday that reports that omicron causes less severe illness are “encouraging if that is true” but cautioned that scientists are still learning about the new variant.

Alabama in recent days has seen a slight increase in cases and hospitalizations, and health officials say delta for now remains the dominant variant in the state.

“They are beginning to tick up,” Harris said, adding that the rise is primarily caused by unvaccinated people.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has risen over the past two weeks from 303 on Nov. 29 to 542 on Dec. 13, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. However, that is well below the two pandemic peaks when the state was reporting as many as 4,000 new cases per day.

Dr. Don Williamson, the former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association, said the state has seen a slight uptick in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. The number had dropped under 300 in late November, but on Wednesday there were 378 people with COVID-19 in state hospitals, according to numbers reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

That is a fraction of the hospitalizations that occurred during the previous two peaks, when about 3,000 people were hospitalized.

“It is trending up. I wouldn’t call it a spike yet,” Williamson said. “Everything tells me we are in an upslope of another increase. How high is it going to be? That we don’t know.”

Decatur Morgan Hospital had 19 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, including six on ventilators. Athens-Limestone Hospital had five COVID patients, with one on a ventilator.

Williamson said a key question is what happens when omicron goes from a “negligible impact to being the dominant variant.”

Williamson said Thanksgiving gatherings, in a population with a low vaccination rate, might have driven some of the current uptick.

“People traveled more. People got together more, and more of the gatherings are indoors, and that is going to drive more spread of the disease in a population where still less than 50% have had two doses,” he said.

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(1) comment

Chuck Johns

What test was used to determine a specific variant ?

How was this test produced so quickly ?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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