There was a huge sense of relief in Southwest Florida hospitals that the delta variant seemed to have slowed, but local health officials are becoming accustomed to the quick changes that come with COVID-19 and this new variant has their attention.
It is not the news any of us wanted to hear. The omicron variant is circulating alarmingly fast.
“This is going to become the dominant variant in all likelihood worldwide, and should be considered a very high-risk variant,” said Dr. David Lindner, the COVID-19 response leader for NCH. “I think the key points are that this variant went from a few sequence cases, to the dominant variant in days on the South African region.”
The rapid spread of this new variant is concerning, and so is the magnitude of mutations or changes in its structure. The further it gets from the Wuhan source virus, the tricker it becomes. The vaccines are based on the specific genetic structure of the original virus. Omicron shows an astounding development past that.
“Alpha had four mutations, OK, beta, we get into six, delta had 10 mutations. There were 26 mutations, three deletions, and specifically at the N-1 protein. This is a bad actor.” said Lindner of omicron.
Dr. Fauci confirmed that many of the important changes involve the protein spike which is used to break into our cells and replicate. More spikes, more chances for virus particles to infect.
Lindner said, “The early data on Omicron suggested it could be up to six times faster and more contagious than delta.”
How bad it will get remains to be seen. Early indications are that it will spread easily and may cause less severe illness, but only time will tell.
In the meantime, NCH and other health systems are using this interval to vaccinate more people and prepare for an influx of cases.
Dr. Lindner also said that if previous patterns hold up, we might experience a delay in our surge. That is what happened at the start of the pandemic and with delta, so the window to prepare might be greater in Florida.
With a small window to prepare for a possible omicron variant outbreak, schools in Southwest Florida are handcuffed by state law.
Lee County schools sent a letter with a color-coded chart to parents during the Thanksgiving break. It explained that because state law prevents any public school from mandating masks, it can only recommend them.
The School District of Lee County’s letter to parents is below:
Good evening SDLC Families.
On November 18, 2021 Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1B “COVID-19 Mandates” into law.
The law prohibits district school boards, district school superintendents, elected or appointed local officials and district school board employees from mandating facial coverings. Therefore, we have updated our masking guidance. Now, face coverings are no longer required, but are strongly recommended indoors during High and Substantial Community Transmission, recommended indoors at Moderate Transmission and optional at Low Transmission.
Community Transmission is made up of two different criteria:
- The positivity rate; and
- The number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven (7) days.
You can find the CDC indicators and thresholds for each here. Currently we are in the Moderate Community Transmission level, and have been for at least 14 consecutive days, which means face coverings are recommended indoors on school campuses.
The law also prohibits educational institutions from mandating vaccines for students and employees, which we have never done.
Over the next few weeks we will be adding all of our other mitigation strategies to this matrix and will share the final version once it is complete.
As always, we thank you for your continued patience and flexibility, and most importantly for your partnership in your child’s education.
The School District of Lee County
The CDC bases its transmissibility level on the number of new cases per 100,000 over the past seven days and the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests over the past seven days. The CDC says if the indicators suggest differing transmission levels, the higher level is selected.
The CDC’s county-by-county breakdown of transmission risk levels can be found here.
Collier County schools said that at this time their guidelines will not be changing.
The new omicron variant will not change anything in our schools, but it could change the minds of people who won’t wear masks or get the vaccine.
Ron Weiland from Port Charlotte told WINK News he worries about another nationwide shutdown. “The economy, what happens if we go into that again. Are masks mandated in restaurants, and shops, schools? Fear of there’s a fear of what could possibly recur how bad it was the first time.”
In a news conference on Monday, President Joe Biden said that he is not recommending more lockdowns, but is urging everyone to get vaccinated.
According to the CDC, more than 60% of people in Lee County are fully vaccinated, 65% are vaccinated in Charlotte County with almost 70% in Collier County.
Cape Coral’s Luis Perez said he’s glad he got the shot even with this new variant. “It makes me safer, I believe safer against other people even though they say you can still carry it. But I do think out protects you.”
While WINK News spoke to others who say omicron won’t impact their decision to get vaccinated, everyone here already has.
“Everyone’s wondering why do we need an extra one when that was so for sure that we needed the first two,” said Weiland.
Natale Montalto from Cape Coral said, “people have even gotten vaccinated, we’re still getting (COVID). So I don’t think they know enough about it yet to honestly try and conquer it.”
In September, Lee Health was celebrating a decrease in COVID-19 cases, but Dr. Larry Antonucci was concerned that it wasn’t actually the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
Antonucci said at the time, “we always run the risk of another variant coming along so we will keep our fingers crossed. This is the fourth surge we’ve seen and we certainly don’t want to see a fifth.”
Antonucci proved to be prophetic. For months in news conferences and in zoom interviews, he warned: viruses mutate.
With countless people not vaccinated worldwide another variant was just a matter of time.
“The more likely the virus replicates in our community the more likely we are to see other variants and other mutations and that’s what’s very worrisome as we look at this. As we allow this virus to continue to multiply and replicate, we increase the chance that a new mutation and new variant will arise,” said Antonucci.
On Monday, three Southwest Florida doctors weighed in and agreed; the world needs more people to get the shot.
“You know, this is not only expected but will be what happens for us in the future,” said NCH Dr. David Lindner.
Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida said, “COVID is not going away. And it may be with us forever, in some way, shape or form. So better now that we learn how to live with it.”
Dr. Rebekah Bernard with Gulf Coast Direct Primary Care said, “I think if everyone gets vaccinated, maybe we’ll be able to nip it in the bud before it becomes more of an issue again.”
The CDC and other organizations say it could take around two weeks to determine if the current vaccines can protect against the omicron variant.