Evidence of a new variant to the COVID-19 virus, the omicron variant, has been detected in other countries. So far, it hasn’t made its way to the New River Valley, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in the United States.

Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District, said during a meeting with news media on Nov. 29 that the district is following the new variant’s path and watching its impact. She suspects that omicron already is in the United States, but it hasn’t been officially documented.

Already, the district expects to see a rise in COVID-19 cases as a result of people gathering during the Thanksgiving holiday. Still, coupled with the news of the omicron variant, Bissell said she doesn’t expect that the region will have the same big surge in COVID-19 infections as occurred with the delta variant and before vaccines were available.

That’s because “we have a substantial number of people who are vaccinated and who have gotten booster shots,” she said. “Usually when these viruses do mutate, they’re not more deadly. They tend to be more transmissible but less deadly.”

Currently, coronavirus cases in the New River Health District have plateaued, with about 200 cases a week for the district. Also, hospitalizations for patients with COVID-19 are down in the region.

However, the district has seen a bump in flu cases, in particular flu A, which often is more severe and symptomatic, Bissell said. Specifically, the virus was spreading among college students just before the Thanksgiving holiday break. In some of these instances, people have been sicker with the flu than they were with COVID-19, Bissell said.

With the spread of many seasonal respiratory illnesses, people should be tested for both COVID-19 and the flu if they experience symptoms.

“We are asking that people not assume that it is a cold or allergies,” Bissell said.

Right now, it’s also important that people take steps to mitigate the spread of many respiratory illnesses, such as the flu, COVID-19, and others, she said. That includes getting vaccinated for flu and COVID-19, washing hands frequently, avoiding crowded spaces, and wearing masks indoors in poorly ventilated spaces.

“We are asking everyone to do their part and slow the spread of all of these infections,” Bissell said. “What works for COVID works for RSV and flu as well.”

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