'Do not wait': Omicron variant raises COVID-19 alarm as Pa. vaccination rate declines

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

York County's COVID-19 cases flew past 70,000 over Thanksgiving break as Pennsylvania's vaccination rate fell roughly 5% due to an apparent counting error. 

Meanwhile, the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant — deemed "highly transmissible" by the World Health Organization — has raised alarm that the already anticipated winter surge could be further compounded.

“Do not wait. Go get your booster if it’s time for you to do so,” President Joe Biden said Monday, in a public appearance at the White House. “And if you are not vaccinated, now is the time to go get vaccinated and to bring your children to go get vaccinated.”

President Joe Biden listens as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Biden further said that the country would fast-track research into whether updated vaccines or boosters were necessary to respond to the new strain.

Taking an act-now-ask-questions-later approach, countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.

Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the U.S. and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.

Travelers infected with the new variant have turned up in a widening circle of countries over the past few days, now including Spain. Cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.

“Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

York County has recorded 70,372 COVID-19 cases and 1,066 deaths since the start of the pandemic, including 1,306 new cases and eight new deaths recorded since Wednesday. 

The seeming surge was likely a data blip because state officials did not update COVID-19 data during Thanksgiving weekend. Monday morning was the first update to the state webpage since Wednesday.

According to state Department of Health data, York County had 148 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Monday, including 35 adult patients in the ICU and 24 patients on ventilators. 

Across all 67 counties, the state has seen 1,731,154 cases and 33,308 deaths. There have been more than 5.8 million negative COVID-19 tests throughout Pennsylvania, including 198,348 in York County.

Just before the holiday break, Pennsylvania's adult vaccination rate dropped about 5%, from 73.7% fully vaccinated on Nov. 23 to 68.8% on Nov. 24, according to state news releases.

It is unclear precisely what caused the change or how it affected York County's vaccination rate. In the Nov. 24 news release, state officials said the CDC "rectified" its data to match Pennsylvania's COVID-19 data, which was the only public explanation for the change. 

As of Monday, at least 249,013 people in York County had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, making up about 55% of the county's population.

Those interested in getting the vaccine or a booster shot can find out about local availability at vaccines.gov.

More:Gov. Tom Wolf's mask mandate must expire Dec. 4, judge rules amid school debate

More:York County districts pass last year's COVID-19 total less than halfway through school year

COVID-19 cases in schools remained relatively unchanged over the Thanksgiving holidays, with just 12 new cases recorded since Wednesday, bringing the total to 3,280 cases since the start of the school year.

That is likely because most school districts did not add new case numbers over the break. Several districts also allowed students and staff Monday off for the holiday.

York County schools have already topped the previous school year's total case count and at this rate will more than double last year's total by the summer. In the 2020-21 school year, county schools recorded about 2,800 cases.

York City Medical Director Dr. Matthew Howie said the region will see more of the impact from holiday gatherings over the next two to three weeks. 

"Thus far, COVID-19 is mirroring the pattern of other winter respiratory viruses, though clearly on a larger scale," Howie said. 

More:More than 2,800 COVID-19 cases recorded at York County schools during school year

More:COVID-19 reporting varies widely among York County schools

No two school districts are tracking COVID-19 cases in the same way. 

Five districts — Dallastown, Hanover, Northeastern, Southern and West Shore — are not posting their total cases for the school year. Instead, some of them are only publishing cases recorded during the previous 14 days, while others are only posting active cases. 

Among other districts, COVID-19 tracking varies. Some districts don't include cases that were contracted while the students or staff were off district property. Some combine probable and confirmed cases, while others keep the two separate. 

It's impossible to know the exact number of COVID-19 cases linked to every school district in the county. But The York Dispatch will continue to keep track of the number of cases in each district to the best of our knowledge.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

You can keep track of your district's recorded cases for the 2021-2022 school year here. We will continue to update on a daily basis as numbers change.