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Officials encourage COVID-19 vaccination as Orange County faces omicron surge


Empty syringes wait to be prepared with a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 in the Friday Center in Chapel Hill.

Cases of the omicron variant, now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S., are rising across Orange County.

Though only a fraction of all COVID-19 cases are sequenced to determine their variant, the proportion of the omicron variant is increasing compared to other variants in the cases that are sequenced, according to the Orange County Health Department.

With this rise of omicron cases and the return of UNC students to campus, Orange County officials are urging community members to get vaccinated.

Kristin Prelipp, public information officer and communications manager for Orange County Health Department, said in an email that getting vaccinated is important to minimize a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Get vaccinated now, including obtaining a COVID-19 booster as soon as you are eligible," Prelipp said in an email. "This is critical for those over age 65, those with underlying medical conditions and healthcare workers. The Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are the best choice for most people."

As of Tuesday, 78 percent of Orange County residents 5 years and older are fully vaccinated.

For the week ending on Tuesday, there were 1,274 total COVID-19 cases in Orange County, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services dashboard. Over the last 14 days, there have been 2,843 total cases.

According to The New York Times, the number of cases in Orange County has increased by 160 percent over the last two weeks.

“We are learning more about it day by day from some of our colleagues in other countries that are experiencing (omicron) at higher levels,” Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention, said. 

Sickbert-Bennett said previous COVID-19 infections from other variants affects susceptibility to omicron.

“It does seem that our immunity, in particular individuals who have been infected with previous variants, may not be as protected,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the omicron variant has increased transmissibility and the ability to evade immunity from past infection or vaccination. Additionally, individuals who test positive can spread the virus even if they are vaccinated or don't have symptoms.

“Evidence suggests that (omicron) is two to three times as contagious as the delta variant, making it four to six times as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus,” former NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a Dec. 20 press conference.

Despite its increased contagiousness, current research shows that symptoms from omicron are less severe than symptoms from the original strain of COVID-19. According to the CDC, booster shots help strengthen protection against the omicron variant.

Kody Kinsley, who succeeded Cohen as NCDHHS secretary, said at a Jan. 4 press conference that the department was going to continue its efforts to help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

"We're taking several steps guided by our laser focus on saving lives, ensuring that hospitals can provide care to people who need it and keeping kids in the classroom," Kinsley said.

While some were worried about students coming back to Chapel Hill, others looked forward to their return, including Christine Schwarz, event coordinator and outside sales manager for Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews on Franklin Street.

Schwarz said UNC students are Epilogue's main clientele. 

“It’s definitely one of those things where we have to trust our clientele to be vaccinated, and we enforce masking in the store," Schwarz said. "That’s the best measure that we have, at least to keep it as safe as possible for our patrons and staff in the store.”

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Orange County Community Relations Director Todd McGee said in an email statement that all residents are encouraged to follow COVID-19 safety measures to contain the spread of the virus.

“Those measures include getting vaccinated and boosted if you are eligible, wearing a mask indoors and in crowded situations and practicing social distancing,” McGee said.

Editor's Note: Former staff writer Christian Phillips is a candidate in an upcoming UNC Undergraduate Student Government election. The Daily Tar Heel is not affiliated with Undergraduate Student Government or the University.

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