Gustavo Basso via Wikimedia Commons

The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Hospitals and Healthcare Association COVID-19 Dashboard are showing some sobering numbers this morning, as a new 7,139 COVID cases have hit over the last 24 hours while hospitalization trends are inching back towards the September 2021 high water mark.

While all indicators point towards the new Omicron variant being significantly milder in symptoms than the previous Delta variant, the increased virulence combined with already at-risk populations already falling prey to the pandemic means that those who had been taking precautions will now have to increase their vigilance in the days and weeks ahead.  From the Wall Street Journal:

People infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus are between 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to the hospital than those who caught earlier strains, according to a new U.K. study that adds to a growing body of evidence of Omicron’s reduced severity in populations with high levels of immunity.

The analysis from England, published Thursday by the U.K.’s Health Security Agency, follows studies in Scotland and South Africa that also pointed to a substantially lower risk of hospitalization with Omicron than with more established variants, including Delta.

Scientists are still unsure how these encouraging findings around hospitalizations will stack up against Omicron’s much increased transmissibility, and ability to partially evade the protection of vaccines. The risk, they say, is the variant could still cause a big wave of hospital admissions simply by infecting many more people.

The good news is that Omicron’s virulence should help in the race for herd immunity, as only 63% of Americans have achieved immunity either through vaccinations, having caught an earlier case of COVID, or through natural resistance to the disease.  In Virginia, at least 78% have received at least one dose, with 63% receiving both doses.

At present, despite masking and social distancing precautions, Virginia’s R(0) rates are still between 1.4 and 1.8 — meaning that for every person who gets COVID they end up statistically sharing it with 1.4 to 1.8 others.

Mitigation through self-policing, wearing masks in public spaces, and being generally aware of your own health needs in consultation with your doctor remains sound advice from the CDC.