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West Virginia Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh: Omicron Now Dominant COVID-19 Strain in State

Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Governor’s Office - West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice looks over a get well card sent to him by Eastyn, the daughter of Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, during Monday’s online COVID-19 briefing. Recovering from the virus himself, Justice spoke from his office at the Capitol, removing his mask once there was no one else in the room.

CHARLESTON — The omicron variant of COVID-19 accounted for approximately 82% of the new cases in West Virginia over the last week, the state’s coronavirus czar said Monday.

The prevalence of the more contagious variant first identified in South Africa has grown from about 15% of cases two weeks ago to 45 to 50% last week and 82% most recently, Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president/executive dean for Health Sciences at West Virginia University, said during Gov. Jim Justice’s online pandemic briefing.

“Omicron is by far the most infectious form of COVID-19 that we’ve ever seen,” Marsh said, noting it took the delta variant three or four months to supplant the alpha variant as the most common in the United States.

“Omicron replaced delta in the U.S. within three weeks,” he said.

While reports indicate omicron is less likely to cause severe complications than delta, James Hoyer, leader of the state’s joint interagency task force, used a comparison by former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to illustrate the danger the variant still poses. If an enemy force is using a weapon that’s only one-third as effective, but has four times as many soldiers firing it, it’s 1.3 times more likely to kill someone, he said.

“Cases are going to continue to expand under omicron because of its level of contagiousness,” Hoyer said.

Marsh said about 10% of the positive cases in the state are sent for further genetic sequencing to determine what strain of the virus caused the illness.

“We try to choose them from geographic distributions and also try to sample areas that are having more active case numbers,” he said. “I think that the important issue may not be just ‘It’s this number;’ it’s really that trend.”

Knowing which variant is more prevalent where can also help determine the response, as certain treatments are more effective against one than the other, Marsh said.

Monday marked Justice’s first briefing in more than a week after the governor tested positive for the virus on Jan. 11. Justice said he still believes people should be able to choose whether to get vaccinated, but his own experience after being fully vaccinated and boosted made him even more certain that getting the shots is the right thing to do.

“There’s no doubt that God has given us the abilities to have medicines to try and save our lives,” he said. “If I hadn’t had those vaccines, I think I would have been in really tough shape.”

Justice said he and those around him take a number of precautions to prevent contracting or spreading the virus.

“If I can end up with it, you can end up with it, I promise you that,” he said.

The governor’s request to federal authorities for permission to administer a fourth booster shot was in part an effort to blunt the spread of omicron, Marsh said. Given its growth, that’s unlikely to be effective now, he said, but it would still provide additional protection against the most severe effects of the virus, given that immunity from the vaccines wanes over time.

The color-coded County Alert System map charting the rate at which the virus is spreading in different parts of the state remained absent from the state’s online COVID dashboard Monday. That’s a result of changing calculations after new federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines reduced the duration of active cases from 10 days to five, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said.

“We’re really trying to be careful and methodical (with) how we move forward with the map,” he said.

Crouch said he hopes the new calculations will be determined and the map back online this week.

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