JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The state’s health department has confirmed 13 Missourians have tested positive for omicron, but the number of wastewater samples containing the variant is growing fast.
Roughly 2,000 people are hospitalized because of COVID and the Missouri Hospital Association (MHA) said it’s just a matter of time before that number rises, as researchers find more omicron in samples from wastewater treatment plants, expect the number of cases to also increase.
“Some hospitals are exceeding the number of COVID patients that they have had at any other peak,” said Dave Dillon, Missouri Hospital Association. “The number of positive Missourians continues to go up.”
In the past week, Missouri has reported more than 18,000 new COVID cases, an average of 2,583 a day.
“I’m expecting it to take over,” Lead researcher at Mizzou studying and testing wastewater for COVID Marc Johnson said. “Delta might not go away completely but the way things are going, I’m expective omicron to be the dominant lineage within a month or so.”
Earlier this month, a St. Louis City resident was the first to test positive for omicron. As of Monday, there are 13 cases in the state.
“I’m expecting us to set an all-time record again in terms of cases,” Johnson said. “To those unvaccinated, this is still a virus that can kill you and it’s going to be very widespread in a couple of weeks here in Missouri.”
Johnson’s lab is one of the only in the state testing wastewater for COVID. He said he’s starting to find more samples containing omicron
“Most of the sites that turned positive were within 20 miles of Interstate 70,” Johnson said.
For months, he said scientists at Mizzou have been finding the delta variant in nearly every single sample of wastewater, which comes from all parts of the state.
“New York, the UK [United Kingdom], South Africa, most of the places that are ahead of us in this Omicron curve have set all-time case records from the beginning of the pandemic,” Johnson said. “This is the highest they have ever seen. I have no reason to think it’s going to be any different in Missouri.”
The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) said Monday, the omicron variant is rapidly spreading throughout the state. Out of 57 samples collected last week, more than 55% of them showed evidence of the variant in communities across the state, including Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield, Branson, and Joplin.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides the wastewater treatment facilities with the kits, boxes, bags, and tubes in order for the lab to test the samples. Johnson said once they receive the data; within a matter of hours, they upload the information to DHSS who then passes it along to local health departments.
Johnson said his lab at Mizzou collects roughly 200 samples of wastewater weekly.
“With what we know about the disease, with what we know about the science of treating it, it’s probably going to be a very difficult early 2022,” Dillon said. “I foresee, that we are likely to be seeing another peak and it be at least as high as the earlier or perhaps higher.”
Dillon said some health care providers are having to find other places for patients to due to the rising number of hospitalizations.
“Kansas City is now referring patients out to other places as their capacity begins to run short,” Dillon said. “We are still about at two-thirds of the prior highs in hospitalizations.”
Hospitals are concerned about case numbers rising and hospitalizations in the coming weeks.
“As difficult as it was going into the holiday, it’s very difficult to imagine that we are in a worse place than we were before,” Dillon said.
He said because of the holidays, hospitals throughout the country have been given two extra days to upload their data, so there is currently a lag in the system, which means it could be next year before the state has a more accurate picture of how the virus is affecting hospitals.
Another issue, Dillon said, is staffing. Hospitals have enough supplies and PPE, but nurses, doctors, and other health care providers are going on year two of responding to the pandemic.
“They are very tired, some people have left the profession, it’s very difficult to get staffing,” Dillon said.
In a previous interview, Dillon said health care providers across the state are using staffing agencies to have enough workers.
Currently, 53% of Missouri’s population is fully vaccinated, and more than a million booster shots have been administered.