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Healthcare

Highly contagious Omicron variant leads to spike in SD case numbers, hospitalizations

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

South Dakotans need to get vaccinated because the highly contagious Omicron COVID-19 is causing high case and hospitalization rates, the state epidemiologist says.

"The concern is that we want people to continue to get vaccinated against COVID because we're seeing increased number of cases so even if it's less severe overall, that does mean that we will anticipate more hospitalizations," Dr. Josh Clayton said.

Studies have shown that Omicron has milder symptoms but is more contagious than past COVID-19 variants.

Omicron is causing breakthrough cases among vaccinated people and those with prior infections. But studies show that people who are vaccinated, especially with a booster, are less likely to have severe infections.

Those studies are reflected in South Dakota which is seeing a spike in cases — which are undercounted due to at-home tests — and hospitalizations.

South Dakota's active case count is the highest since vaccinations became available and 305 people hospitalized with COVID-19. Health systems report that about 90% of their COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Hospitalization is "an important indicator given that we don’t have all of the test results that are maybe done in the home space," Clayton said. "So shifting and maintaining that focus on hospitalizing is really going to be key as we prepare for the Omicron surge."

The DOH is continuing to emphasize its existing testing, vaccination, and education campaigns rather than roll out new or expanded programs.

Clayton says getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against the virus. Fifty-six percent of eligible South Dakotans are fully vaccinated and some of them have the booster.

Other methods include testing, staying home when sick, wearing masks, staying away from crowds, and washing hands.

The DOH allows anyone to order a free saliva-based test from Vault. The tests are highly accurate but take several days to get results since they must be shipped, sent to a lab, and then processed. Vault also says results are taking longer due to a high volume of test kits coming in.

Clayton said people can order the kits at any time so they can use them as soon as they show symptoms.

He said the DOH does not plan to send free nose swab-based tests, which are processed in minutes but can have false negatives. The DOH has sent free test kits to schools, universities, and childcare centers.

The DOH also coordinates with pharmacies and medical centers to make sure they have enough tests and vaccines, Clayton said.

People can buy test kits at stores or receive free and highly accurate PCR tests at health centers and pharmacies.

Clayton said the DOH is continuing its Trusted Voices campaign on social media and TV. The campaign was created in June and features videos of four people: Two tribal leaders, a Latina doctor, and a nurse who got vaccinated while pregnant.

Spokesman Daniel Bucheli said the DOH will continue airing the videos — which were made before vaccines received full approval from the FDA and expanded to children. He said the DOH monitors the effectiveness of all campaigns.