Williams County remains at the top when it comes to COVID-19 case rates as a new variant of the disease was discovered in South Africa.

The Williams County Health Department’s weekly Community Talking Points release states Williams County had 268 new cases of COVID-19 reported between Nov. 16 and Nov. 23.

This has resulted in a per capita case rate of 1,093 new cases per 100,000 population over the last two weeks. That’s just over double the statewide case rate of 496 cases per 100,000.

Williams County is ranked No. 1 in the state based on per capita case rate for the second week a row.

The week also saw 11 COVID-19 hospitalizations and two reported deaths, though issues with the state reporting system means there is a time lag between when the death occurred and when it is officially reported.

So far in the county, 43% of people have completed at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while 40% have completed the series.

A separate release from Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers states as of this past Wednesday there are 15 COVID inpatients at the hospital, and CHWC is using negative-pressure tents in the rooms to meet the volume. These patients are “very ill,” according to the release, and will not be discharged soon.

CHWC has the ability to double up two rooms to bring a maximum capacity of 17 COVID-19 patients before they have to start using hallways for treatment.

As of Wednesday, patients were utilizing all the ventilators in the hospital’s stock and officials are working on securing two more from the regional emergency cache.

Staffing resources already strained prior to the pandemic are only getting worse with increased volumes and potential loss of staff from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Hospital officials have resorted to limiting rehabilitation inpatients at CHWC-Montpelier to utilize that staff to care for COVID patients.

CHWC isn’t the only hospital experiencing problems, as larger area hospitals are having issues with staff and available beds, making transferring patients difficult. Recently, CHWC said it took three days to place non-COVID patients who came into the emergency department needing services CHWC doesn’t provide.

Transfers have been made difficult with Toledo and Fort Wayne, Indiana, hospitals being at capacity as are hospitals CHWC officials have reached out to in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Detroit, Indianapolis, Indiana and Cleveland.

The release asks for people to help “flatten the COVID curve” by:

• Getting vaccinated;

• Wearing masks in public settings;

• Physical distancing;

• Washing hands; and

• Staying home.

“We are in this together and we will do everything we can to provide comprehensive patient-centered healthcare to our community,” the CHWC release states in its closing paragraph. “During these challenging times, we are utilizing precautionary measures to safely take care of you. Please do not hesitate in seeking care.”

OMICRON VARIANT

These updates came just a few days before the announcement of a new variant of COVID-19 identified in South Africa.

The variant, called omicron, was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization Friday and has been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described omicron as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen,” including potentially worrying changes never before seen all in the same virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious diseases doctor, said American officials had arranged a call with their South African counterparts later on Friday to find out more details and said there was no indication the variant had yet arrived in the U.S.

Scientists know that omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants including the beta and delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.

It will likely take weeks to sort out if omicron is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines wouldn’t work, noting they are effective against numerous other variants.

The announcement has resulted in several countries instituting travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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