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Health officials confirm first two cases of the omicron variant in Allegheny County

David Zalubowski

Omicron, the newly emerged and extremely infectious variant of COVID-19, has officially arrived in Allegheny County. On Thursday afternoon, the Allegheny County Health Department said that two adult males had confirmed cases of the variant.

Earlier this week, traces were found in the wastewater of the Pittsburgh area, according to the health department. It's likely just a matter of time before omicron becomes the dominant strain of COVID-19 in southwestern Pennsylvania.

When this happens, transmission rates will climb even higher — currently, the county is seeing about 600 new cases a day. While there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that omicron is less deadly than earlier strains of COVID-19, a certain portion of people will still become severely ill. Because omicron spreads so rapidly, this may push some southwest Pennsylvania hospitals to the breaking point.

As western Pennsylvania enters this new phase of the pandemic, the Allegheny County Health Department is pulling back on investigating cases of COVID-19, only doing so when someone is younger than 5 or older than 50. The first group is too young to be vaccinated, and the second faces a greater risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that case investigation is when, “public health staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious.” These contacts are then notified that they were exposed.

“We made these changes because we’ve been at this for nearly two years. Fewer people respond to our calls. And many people are now conducting tests at home, and therefore, we don’t have that information about their results,” explained the county health department director Dr. Debra Bogen, who noted that her staff can only investigate 200 new cases a day.

These changes and developments come amid a lack of COVID-19 mitigation efforts — including face masks. Bogen estimates that the number of people an infected individual spreads the virus to is reduced by half when people wear well-fitting masks. This results in significantly slowing the exponential spread of the virus, thus protecting medically fragile people and helping to keep health systems intact.

“This is about individual and collective responsibility. And the simple fact is that masks reduce transmission of the virus, and you don't need a mask mandate to do the right thing,” said Bogen.

Masks are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially when most people wear them. But here is no mask mandate in Pennsylvania — unlike last year when cases were also surging ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Some argue that emphasizing individual responsibility lets government officials off the hook. Though recent legal rulings and legislative gridlock have left public health leaders, such as Bogen, with few options.

Medical experts continue to urge the public to get vaccinated and boosted. While breakthrough cases are more common with the omicron variant, the COVID-19 vaccines help reduce someone’s chances of severe illness and death.

Bogen noted that there have been 18 COVID-19 fatalities this month among people ages 30 to 59 — all were unvaccinated. “These deaths are as tragic as they are unnecessary and premature, and it breaks my heart.”

Updated: December 23, 2021 at 3:36 PM EST
Updated to confirm omicron is now in Allegheny County.
Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.