The fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 reached suburban Cook County last week, according to a top public health official, who warned that the detection comes as cases were already on the rise and that omicron was likely to become the dominant local strain of the virus in short order, as it has throughout the nation.

Dr. Rachel Rubin, Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH) senior medical officer, held a press conference on Dec. 15 to announce that the first positive detection of the omicron variant in suburban Cook County had been confirmed one day prior. The unidentified woman was tested because she was a close contact of another person in whom the variant had been identified. Rubin declined to reveal specific details about the woman, including where she resides.

The woman was vaccinated and asymptomatic, according to Rubin, who again used the press conference to renew her plea that all eligible people receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines and that those who are eligible receive a booster shot.

The vaccines have proven highly effective at limiting both the spread of the virus and the health risks to those who do become infected. The rate of severe illness and death in vaccinated individuals is significantly lower than in the unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the vaccines appear to offer similarly robust protection against the omicron variant.

In the month of October, the most recent period in which data is available, the CDC reported that unvaccinated people were five times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 and 14 times more likely to die from the virus. Those fully vaccinated who had also received a booster shot were even less likely to get sick or die.

Vaccine boosters are available to all Americans age 16 and older, provided it has been at least six months from their last vaccine dose. Booster doses are available at most local pharmacies, and residents can also use the website to find community health centers that are offering immunizations.

A vaccine is administered. File photo

Omicron arrives

The omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa in mid-November and by the end of last month it had spread to much of the world, including the United States.

Just weeks later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, omicron became the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the country, representing 73.2% of all new cases reported between Dec. 12 and 18.

Rubin, of CCDPH, said it wouldn’t be long before omicron was dominant in her jurisdiction as well.

“It’s much more contagious, meaning it’s more easily spread even than the Delta variant, which is more easily spread than prior variants that were the most prominent,” she said last week.

As of Dec. 21, CCDPH was still reporting just the single omicron case, although Rubin said that person’s close contacts were being tested and their results genotyped to attempt and identify the variant.

There has been some initial speculation that the omicron variant causes less severe symptoms but, according to Reuters, the World Health Organization said earlier this week that it was too early to declare the variant milder than past iterations and cautioned that even if it is not as severe, any increase in hospitalizations would place a strain on health care systems that have been overburdened in battling the virus for nearly two years.

In response to the spread of the omicron variant, President Joe Biden was expected to announce a plan to bolster support for hospitals (including the deployment of 1,000 U.S. military service members), create new COVID-19 testing sites nationwide, and establish a program to distribute 500 million at-home tests to Americans who want them.

A woman receives a COVID-19 test. File photo

Case numbers continue to rise

Even before the detection of the omicron variant, the communities encompassing CCDPH (much of Cook County excluding Chicago, Oak Park and a handful of other towns) were experiencing a surge in cases not seen since last November and December, the period that has so far marked the peak of the pandemic.

Rubin reported on Dec. 15 that the department was detecting more than 1,000 new cases per day at that time, and as of Dec. 18 the seven-day rolling average of new cases had climbed to 1,936, the highest level since Nov. 18, 2020 (1,947). The case positivity rate reported by CCDPH was nearly as unprecedented, reaching 9.2% on Dec. 15, the highest level since mid-January.

Forest Park, meanwhile, continues to more than double its output of new positive tests, with a 114% growth in confirmed cases during the 14-day period ending Dec. 20. The village has now seen 1,730 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The village also lost another resident to the virus, bringing the total number of deaths from COVID-19 up to 32 Forest Parkers. A 69-year-old woman died on Dec. 14 after contracting the virus, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner.

Forest Park does, however, continue to boast a relatively high vaccination rate, with now 82% of residents receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 62.3% with what is described as a complete vaccine series. Those numbers outpace the CCDPH rates, which are at 76.8% and 59.2%, respectively.

The CCDPH vaccine totals also reveal a geographic disparity in vaccination rates, with the percentage of people with at least one vaccine dose at 84.5% in the CCDPH’s north district, 76.6% in the west, 68.6% in the southwest, and 66.2% in the south.

In addition to the vaccines and boosters, Rubin also offered guidance for those planning to gather for the holidays.

For those who are vaccinated, she recommended everyone wear masks inside private homes if they are gathering with people not from their household, and that party attendees test three days in advance of the event and again the morning of the gathering.

For those who are unvaccinated, her guidance was unambiguous, recommending they “do not celebrate with others outside of your immediate household.”