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Omicron variant spreading fast in Washington state

The trajectory of infections is going up as more cases are being confirmed in Washington state.

SEATTLE — King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin held a briefing Wednesday at noon to discuss the omicron variant and COVID-19 vaccination and booster efforts. 

Duchin said a growing number of omicron cases in King County are not linked to international travel, which implies the variant is spreading locally. 

The omicron variant is spreading at an alarming rate in Washington state. The  Associated Press reports case numbers are doubling each day. It's one of the highest rates in the country. It is leading to a call for people to get vaccinated and take extra precautions as we head into the holidays. 

In just three days, the variant doubled in positive test size each day from 3% to 7% to 13%. Respiratory therapist Liz Lewis said she’s worried there will be an uptick in hospitalizations.

Duchin said 98% of critical care beds are full in King County hospitals. 

He also addressed the COVID-19 outbreak linked to high school sports. So far, between 80 and 90 COVID-19 cases have been linked to four high school wrestling tournaments in Washington state. The tournaments all took place on Dec. 4. 

RELATED: Up to 90 COVID-19 cases linked to high school wrestling tournaments in Washington

The virology lab at the University of Washington School of Medicine has identified more than 50 likely omicron variant COVID-19 cases in our state.

What has raised the most concern is not that the raw numbers, but the trajectory of infections rocketing skyward.

“We thought this was important data to get out there," said Pavitra Roychoudhury, a computational biologist.

Researchers look for a missing “S” gene on the spike protein of the omicron variant, a tip off that is often confirmed by subsequent gene sequencing.

“The vast majority of the ones we test that have the 'S' dropout are, in fact, omicron,” Roychoudhury said.   

The samples the lab studies are from positive PCR tests sent in from around the state. The Washington Department of Health runs another lab in Shoreline. Other labs are also perform tests. Data is not yet available from the other labs. 

A graph from UW shows the percentage of likely Omicron infections among daily batch samples. 

Credit: UW
This graph shows the percentage of likely omicron cases in Washington state since Nov. 28.

The UW Medicine virology lab made the first discoveries of omicron in Washington state from samples taken from late November into early December. The results from those tests were announced on Dec. 4.  

Yet now, even with 50-plus cases detected at UW, the steep increase in positive, suspected omicron cases is what’s the biggest concern. The increase indicates how quickly the virus is spreading in Washington. 

“I was surprised at how fast the number went up," Roychoudhury said. However, she prefaced that the actual numbers are still small compared to the total number of positive cases in the state.

Like in other parts of the world, the trajectory here is similar and appears to outpace other variants .

“The rapid rise is very rapid relative to the other variants we have seen. How it’s going to go from here, I don’t know,” Roychoudhury said, pointing out that other variants have leveled off or even petered out. 

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