During the weekly county metric updated Wednesday, Dec. 22, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) showed Wabash County’s COVID-19 advisory as red, the highest level, for the fifth week in a row.

On Wednesday, Dec. 22, the ISDH reported three new local COVID-19 deaths, bringing Wabash County’s total to 127.

With the rising cases locally and statewide, Gov. Eric Holcomb – along with state health commissioner Dr. Kris Box and chief medical officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver – has scheduled the state’s first COVID-19 press conference in at least four months for Wednesday, Dec. 29.

On Tuesday, Dec. 28, press secretary Erin Murphy said they didn’t yet have any updates to share about what would be announced as they were “still working on the remarks.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Dec. 19, the ISDH announced that it had detected the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus in a specimen collected from an unvaccinated Indiana resident.

The variant was detected through the ISDH Laboratories variant surveillance program. The specimen was collected on Dec. 9, and the patient was notified of the positive test. The sequencing to detect a variant was then conducted, and the Omicron variant was detected this weekend.

Indiana was one of just seven states in which Omicron had not yet been detected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Omicron variant is the latest mutation of the virus that causes COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) labeled it a variant of concern on Nov. 26. Studies have shown that the variant spreads more easily and faster than the Delta variant.

The CDC stated COVID-19 vaccines are expected to continue to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death from the Omicron variant. Evidence shows that individuals who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster dose are best protected against this variant.

On Monday, Dec. 27, the CDC announced that “given what we currently know about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant,” they were shortening the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to five days, if asymptomatic, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others.

“The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the one to two days prior to the onset of symptoms and the two to three days after. Therefore, people who test positive should isolate for five days and, if asymptomatic at that time, they may leave isolation if they can continue to mask for five days to minimize the risk of infecting others,” stated the CDC.

The CDC also updated the recommended quarantine period for those exposed to COVID-19. For people who are unvaccinated or are more than six months out from their second mRNA dose – or more than two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – and not yet boosted, CDC now recommends quarantine for five days followed by strict mask use for an additional five days.

“Alternatively, if a five-day quarantine is not feasible, it is imperative that an exposed person wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure. Individuals who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure. For all those exposed, best practice would also include a test for SARS-CoV-2 at day five after exposure. If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19,” stated the CDC. “Isolation relates to behavior after a confirmed infection. Isolation for five days followed by wearing a well-fitting mask will minimize the risk of spreading the virus to others. Quarantine refers to the time following exposure to the virus or close contact with someone known to have COVID-19. Both updates come as the Omicron variant continues to spread throughout the U.S. and reflects the current science on when and for how long a person is maximally infectious.”

Data from South Africa and the United Kingdom demonstrate that vaccine effectiveness against infection for two doses of an mRNA vaccine is approximately 35 percent, stated the CDC.

“COVID-19 vaccination decreases the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. CDC strongly encourages COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 5 and older and boosters for everyone 16 and older. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and reduce the impact of COVID-19 on our communities,” stated the CDC.

A COVID-19 vaccine booster dose restores vaccine effectiveness against infection to 75 percent, stated the CDC.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society. CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather,” said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

All this news comes as local vaccination rates continue to lag behind the state average. In the zip code 46992, which comprises Wabash, 41.4 percent of the eligible population has been vaccinated. Statewide, that figure sits at 54.5 percent, as of Tuesday, Dec. 28.

To date, more than 8 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Indiana, including more than 1 million booster doses. Nearly 3.5 million Hoosiers are fully vaccinated.

The eligible population for vaccinations increased earlier last month as the minimum age was lowered from 12 to 5. On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the ISDH announced that Hoosiers ages 5 to 11 are now eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccine following the previous day’s authorization of the pediatric vaccine by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Pfizer vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine that is currently authorized for use in individuals under age 18.

On Friday, Dec. 10, the ISDH announced that any Hoosier aged 16 or older can receive a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine so long as they received their second dose at least six months ago.

The CDC on Thursday, Dec. 9 approved the administration of a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine for individuals 16 and older following the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) decision to expand its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to include individuals ages 16 and 17. The Pfizer vaccine is the only vaccine authorized for use in individuals younger than age 18.

Hoosiers aged 16 and older who want to obtain a booster dose should go to www.ourshot.in.gov and look for a location that carries the Pfizer vaccine, designed by PVAX, or call Indiana 211 (866-211-9966) for assistance finding a location. Appointments are recommended, but many sites also accept walk-ins.

The Parkview Health COVID-19 vaccine clinic, currently located at 3718 New Vision Drive, Building C, Fort Wayne, offers first, second and booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Booster shots are now recommended for anyone age 16 and older. To make an appointment, visit ourshot.in.gov or call 260-266-0778 or toll-free, 877-651-0748. Walk-ins are also welcome.

On Monday, Dec. 20, the ISDH announced that it has extended its COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway through Jan. 22, 2022. The clinic is being held in the INDYCAR parking lot at 4551 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, across from Gate 2. It offers the two-dose Pfizer pediatric and adult vaccines, as well as the two-dose Moderna vaccine.

Vaccinations and testing are being offered from 4 to 8 p.m. Dec. 29; and from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays through Jan. 22, 2022.

Hoosiers can make a vaccination appointment for the IMS site at www.ourshot.in.gov by searching for ZIP code 46222. Individuals under age 18 can only receive the Pfizer vaccine. Parents seeking pediatric doses for children ages 5 to 11 should verify that birthdates are entered correctly when registering to ensure that a Pfizer pediatric dose is available.

To pre-register for a COVID-19 test at the site, visit www.coronavirus.in.gov and click on the testing link at the top of the page; then search for the IMS site.

The ISDH stated that the following steps may help protect Hoosiers from COVID-19, including the Omicron variant:

Get fully vaccinated if eligible, and get a booster if you are age 16 or older.

Wear well-fitting masks over your nose and mouth in indoor public settings and crowded outdoor settings.

Get tested if you have symptoms or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Stay home if you are sick.

Wash your hands frequently.

Avoid crowds.

Rob Burgess, Wabash Plain Dealer editor, may be reached by email at rburgess@wabashplaindealer.com.