KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The omicron variant is likely now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Tennessee, according to State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. She estimated 80% of active cases to be from Omicron. She predicts between 90-95% of statewide cases to be from the variant by next week.
“It is here and it is here in a big way. It came very, very, quickly. Just to put it into context, it took about three months for the delta variant to be the predominant variant nationally. It took omicron about three weeks,” said Piercey.
Experts are still working to learn whether omicron will cause more hospitalizations and severe illness. However, Dr. Piercey said research shows vaccines are offering protection against hospitalization and death. It’s why she, again, took a moment to encourage Tennesseans to get vaccinated – or boosted.
“Even if this is a milder variant when you have a lot of unvaccinated people and a very highly transmissible variant, you’re still going to have some individuals with very severe disease,” she said. Piercey mentioned breakthrough cases are common with Omicron.
While it will be early 2022 until COVID-19 numbers are finalized, Piercey reported a new death toll of 20,644, a climb of more than 2,400.
“These are not recent deaths. these are deaths we’ve captured throughout the pandemic, although many of them, in fact, most about of them, about 70% were since August 1, so most of them are related to the delta surge,” she said.
Piercey noted it is not uncommon for a death to take more than eight weeks to get reported to the state health department. TDH also discovered an increase in at-home deaths, COVID and non-COVID related, compared to last year. Those are often followed by an investigation, she explained, which accounts for some of the lag in reported deaths.
The state also plans to provide new COVID-19 case numbers weekly, rather than daily, in 2022. Piercey pointed out the current “real-time” system is becoming less accurate given the rise of at-home testing, which largely goes unreported. In addition, because many providers still report using a manual system, she added, daily reporting is not as valuable as weekly case trends.
“The tests that are reported to us are a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall and so they’re less and less accurate. It really is irrelevant if the number today is three or four hundred higher than yesterday or lower than yesterday. What we want to look at is trends over time,” Piercey said.
Another issue TDH is raising awareness around is the short supply of monoclonal antibodies. There is just one known to be effective against the new strain, and it is in short supply.
“That supply is extraordinarily limited,” she said. The state received 810 doses this week — and won’t receive more until January.