By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

State to start testing sewage effluent for Omicron variant

The Oregon Health Authority said the state will begin testing sewage effluent this week for the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, that causes COVID-19. The program tests effluent from more than 40 communities in Oregon, including McMinnville.

Omicron has already been found in neighboring states Washington and California.

Early indications appear to show that Omicron may be milder than the virulent Delta strain — at least for adults — although experts caution that data is still preliminary. It can take a week or more for an infected person to become severely ill, and hospitalizations and deaths are always lagging factors.

The New York Times noted on Tuesday that so far, hospitalization and death rates have not soared in South Africa, which appears to be seeing an Omicron surge. The newspaper also noted, however, that information about the variant is very new; patients in South Africa tend to skew young, and that many have some temporary immunity from having contracted the Delta variant. There have also been some indications that hospitalizations have been increasing for children.

If Omicron does prove milder, it will be good news to a weary world, but Delta is still a dominant variant in the United States — including Oregon — and its threat is by no means over. Several states are seeing surges now, even as Oregon officials hope the state’s late summer Delta surge is winding down.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration approved booster doses of the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine for 16 and 17-year-olds, six months after they received their second dose.

However, the World Health Organization said it believes the world’s priority should be getting shots to people who are unvaccinated.

Scientists believe Omicron is almost certainly more contagious than Delta. This is not good news: If a variant kills fewer people per 100,000 infected, but infects significantly more people, the total number of deaths may not actually decrease. Among millions of people, tiny percentages translate into huge numbers.

COVID-19 can cause significant organ damage, disability and increased chances of death for months after infection, even in people who experience mild symptoms, or no symptoms. A mild case of COVID-19 is defined as one in which the infected person did not require supplemental oxygen. Some people with “mild” cases of COVID-19 do have symptoms ordinary laypeople consider mild. Others are sicker than they’ve ever been in their lives. Some take weeks or months to recover.

Vaccination provides two different types of protection: Protection against becoming infected, and protection against developing severe illness if you are infected. The COVID-19 vaccines do both, but the defense against becoming infected does appear to wane over time, (this is why people are urged to get booster shots), and neither is a guarantee. Vaccinated people still are urged to avoid being exposed in the first place, especially since being vaccinated does not necessarily prevent extended symptoms known as Long COVID, from breakthrough infections. There are also early indications that Omicron may be better than its predecessors at causing breakthrough infections.

At the risk of death or disability, getting infected with COVID-19 also provides some level of protection against future infections, but that wanes over time, too, and previously infected people can be reinfected. The New York Times noted that it’s unclear whether previous infection also provides some protection against severe illness, or makes people more susceptible.

There are risk factors involved with the vaccines, as with every medical procedure or medication, and experts urge people to consult their doctors with any questions. But they also note that it’s important to weigh relative risk. For example, according to a study done in Israel last summer, the Pfizer-Biotech vaccine caused heart inflammation in about five out of 100,000 people — but being infected with COVID-19 caused heart inflammation in about 11 out of 100,000 people, and those infections were typically more severe.

More than 1,000 Americans a day die of COVID-19. There is no risk-free option.

The Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report released on Wednesday noted that infections in the state increased by 50% last week, but said it believes that is a “rebound effect” from the reduction in testing over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Test positivity rose only slightly, from 5.6% the previous week to 5.9% last week.

Hospitalizations increased last week, which the OHA also attributed to “a rebound in reporting after Thanksgiving weekend.”

The number of deaths reported remained nearly the same; 126 last week, up from 125 the previous week.

Yamhill County has reported two deaths this week; one from October and one from late November.

A 69-year-old man tested positive Oct. 14 and died Oct. 22 at his residence.

A 53-year-old woman tested positive Nov. 23 and died Nov. 24 at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

Oregon has seen 5,318 deaths from COVID-19, over the course of the pandemic. There have been 145 deaths in Yamhill County.

Comments

Rotwang

Two weeks, she said.

GreggR

A nice addition to this article would be -
What will they do with the information from the testing?
What does the testing of the sewage cost?

Rotwang

Unless they are testing at the point where sewage leaves a building, such as from a college dorm or a nursing home, as I see it, there is not much that can be done with the data, except in a general way to learn if it exists.

GreggR

Rotwang - Yes, seems like costly testing with little to gain from the results. But I would like to hear what will be done with the test results.

Nicole Montesano

Thank you for the questions, readers. I should have specified: The sewage testing program is not new. Looking for the Omicron variant is the part that's new. The state uses the data to track which variants are dominant in different parts of the state, and how fast the different variants are spreading.