Correction: This article was updated to reflect that UF Health commented on the Omicron variant. A previous version of this article reported otherwise.
The number of UF affiliates quarantined fell to 82 Tuesday — 15 less than Nov. 23.
UF’s number of reported cases also fell by about 42% from Nov. 21 to Sunday. The seven-day average fell below three for the first time since July 2.
Meanwhile, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alachua County decreased by 15 this week compared to the prior week. New cases in Alachua County totaled 129 this week and fell by about 91% since Aug. 27. Local and UF cases have continued to drop by about 90% since Aug. 27.
However, while local cases and hospitalizations have dropped steadily for months since the end of August, a newly emerging variant may pose a threat to the trend.
The variant has about 50 mutations, including more than 30 in the spike, a viral protein on a virus’s surface that vaccines train the body to identify and attack. The mutations suggest vaccines may be less effective against Omicron than other variants, though evidence is still needed to confirm vaccine effectiveness.
Meanwhile, UF Health Shands hospitalizations continued to decrease.
Of the 13 COVID-19 patients at Shands on Wednesday, one was in the ICU, UF Health spokesperson Ken Garcia wrote in an email. On Friday, 89% of patients were unvaccinated.
No children were hospitalized as of Wednesday, the same as last week.
Alachua County Public Schools reported 17 students were quarantined as of Monday, a decrease of about 72% from Nov. 19.
Dozens of labs worldwide are working to assess how much less effective the vaccines might be against the variant. Researchers said they’re not expected to have results for at least two weeks.
President Joe Biden reassured Americans Monday that the Omicron variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” His administration is working with vaccine manufacturers to modify vaccines and boosters should it be necessary.
Matt Hitchings, an assistant professor in UF’s department of biostatistics who studies vaccine effectiveness, predicted studies will show the decreased ability of antibodies to fight against Omicron. But scientists still won’t know for maybe a month or longer how that translates into the ability of vaccines to prevent infection and severe disease. They’ll have to wait for people to get infected with Omicron to see vaccine effectiveness, he said.
Hitchings encouraged UF not to shut down its testing sites and to give students their results quickly. Vaccination rates among students and faculty will be most important. He emphasized while vaccines don’t fully prevent infection, they’re still effective in limiting community levels of COVID-19.
“It’s just looking out for each other and thinking about the people who still have kids who aren’t vaccinated,” Hitchings said. “It’s not just about you. It’s about your community.”
Growing concerns regarding the Omicron variant led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend all American adults get booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines Monday. Adults aged 18 and older should get a third shot when they’re six months past the initial Pfizer and Moderna doses, or two months after the single Johnson & Johnson shot, the CDC said.
UF Health is monitoring Omicron and waiting on more information in the next few weeks regarding infectivity, severity of illness and vaccine effectiveness, according to UF Health’s Facebook post. Regardless of new variants, people should get their initial vaccine doses and boosters when eligible to train their immune systems to better protect themselves if they’re exposed to the virus.
“By getting vaccinated, ventilating your spaces and wearing masks in crowded indoor areas, we are putting our best foot forward in continuing to fight COVID-19 and prevent the emergence of additional variants,” UF Health said.
UF is offering COVID-19 testing at the UF Cultural Plaza Parking Garage and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. UF Health is offering walk-up vaccinations on the first floor of Shands, the first floor of Medical Plaza and the first floor of Springhill. Alachua County is offering walk-up vaccinations at various local pharmacies.
Contact J.P. Oprison at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JOprison.
JP is a fourth-year journalism major with a minor in history. He is currently the health reporter for The Alligator, focusing on how the pandemic is affecting Alachua County and the thousands of students in Gainesville. In his free time, JP likes to exercise at the gym and relax on the beach.