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Omicron Variant Not Confirmed In Allegheny County Yet: 'It's Just A Matter Of Days'

By: KDKA-TV's Chris Hoffman and Royce Jones

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - No cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Allegheny County, though it's "only a matter of days" before it's detected, the county's health leader said Wednesday.

Some of the variant was detected in the county's wastewater, Allegheny County Health Director Dr. Debra Bogen said, but there have been no confirmed cases from tests that are being sequenced.

"We're following it closely because we know it's just a matter of days before that happens. In other places, once you get Omicron in your community, it becomes the predominant strain very very quickly, so that's what we're watching for here," she said.

She pointed to a surge fueled by the Omicron variant in the eastern part of the state. Pennsylvania confirmed its first case earlier this month in Philadelphia.

The CDC said Omicron accounted for 73% of new COVID-19 infections last week and has quickly become the dominant version of the virus in the U.S. Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago, and on Nov. 26, the World Health Organization said it was a "variant of concern."

Bogen said hospitalizations and deaths are still high in Allegheny County, and she's concerned about the impending arrival of Omicron.

"Sadly I don't see these numbers improving any time soon. And here's why: Omicron is highly contagious and is causing daily cases to rapidly increase in parts of the country and the world," she said.

WATCH: KDKA's Chris Hoffman reports

Medical leaders told KDKA a dominant strain means it's the form of the virus people are most likely to be exposed to and infected with.

"If everyone were to follow the rules it would go away. The most frustrating part was the people not following the rules," Maddie Dick of Fox Chapel said.

"This is another deadly part to the virus," Jimmie Lee King of Pittsburgh said while in Market Square.

Doctors with UPMC and the Allegheny Health Network echo what Bogen said: there are no confirmed cases yet, but it's only a matter of time.

"I am certain that the virus is here in western Pennsylvania," UPMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donald Yealy said.

What makes the variant challenging is its ability to spread. Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja said Omicron is going to cause more breakthrough cases and reinfections. It has adopted an ability to get by a few protections of the vaccine and pass right through natural immunity.

"This variant is going to go through the population quickly and it's not something that you can completely avoid. If you're doing any kind of social interaction, Omicron is going to be likely present," Dr. Adalja said over Zoom.

Unvaccinated people are seeing harder complications, so the vaccine, masking and distancing are recommended.

"Those are the most important things no matter what variant we're talking about and whether it's around the holidays or not," Dr. Yealy said.

As people don't get vaccinated, it allows for more variants to form.

"They continue to evolve and mutate as long as they have hosts to replicate in. Hosts for the most part as we know are humans. As long as there are big pools of people who are unvaccinated and therefore vulnerable to getting infected, we are going to continue and see this evolution and development of new mutations," AHN Vice Chair for Family Medicine Dr. Amy Crawford-Faucher said.

"I like to keep other people in mind because though I'm vaccinated, people can still carry it," Ava Persichetti of Fox Chapel said.

Doctors believe the current spike we are seeing will continue for a few more weeks.

Bogen also stressed mask-wearing, saying it exponentially helps to slow the spread of COVID-19. She pleaded with people to wear their masks in public places and get vaccinated. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said over 912,000 residents are vaccinated.

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