(Updated at 3:50 p.m.) As Fairfax County prepares for a “likely” wave of omicron infections, officials are cautiously optimistic that vaccination rates and the potentially less-severe illness caused by the variant may prevent a surge like what was seen last winter.
Fairfax County Health Department Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu and epidemiologist Dr. Ben Schwartz lauded the county’s vaccination rates in a status update for the Board of Supervisors’ health and human services committee on Tuesday (Dec. 14).
At the same time, the officials urged residents to get their booster shots in anticipation of already-rising case rates getting accelerated by the omnicron variant that’s quickly spreading around the globe.
While early research suggests the variant is more transmissible and has an increased ability to infect those who are already vaccinated, officials remain hopeful that Fairfax County can avoid a winter surge as drastic as the one seen a year ago.
“We are likely to have an omicron wave here,” said Schwartz. “[But] what we are hearing so far about omicron is that there are fewer hospitalizations.”
The COVID-19 vaccines, particularly booster shots, help prevent severe illness, the experts note. Nearly 69% of all Fairfax Health District residents are considered fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the D.C. area.
But that doesn’t mean residents no longer need to be cautious or careful during the holiday season.
“Even if most infections are mild, a highly transmissible variant could result in enough cases to overwhelm the health care systems,” Schwartz said.
Booster shots are being highly recommended as well as continuing to mask indoors, even if it’s technically no longer required.
“We’ve got to stay with the mitigation efforts,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “I know everyone is exhausted with them, but now is no time to let our guard down.”
Omicron aside, hospitalizations and deaths are currently down across the county, with officials crediting vaccinations.
In addition, while infections were once higher among communities of color compared to the county’s white population, those rates have since more or less evened out.
“This is…a consequence of vaccination, where Hispanics in Fairfax County have a higher vaccination coverage rate than other racial and ethnic groups,” Schwartz said.
Children between the ages of 5 and 9 currently have the highest rate of infection, likely due to that age group just being approved for vaccines a little over a month ago.
Cases within Fairfax County Public Schools, though, have remained very low, according to county health department statistics. Just 0.76% of all students have contracted COVID-19 since late September. The rate is highest among elementary school students, likely due to the delay in vaccination approval.
To this point, 40 school outbreaks have occurred, which are classified as three or more cases within a class or group, but no schools have had to close due to COVID-19.
“This should be proclaimed very widely to the community. These school numbers…are a massive success,” McKay said.
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