KING COUNTY, Wash. — Omicron COVID-19 cases are doubling every two to three days in King County, according to data from the University of Washington's (UW) Virology lab.
Within a week, UW estimates King County could see over 2,000 new COVID-19 cases per day due to the new variant, which is over three times higher than the peak of the delta wave last August.
"We don't know exactly what case counts will be into January in King County and in the U.S., but I'm certain it will be the highest case counts we've seen throughout the pandemic," said Dr. Trevor Bedford with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at a press briefing on Friday.
It's unclear how severe the omicron variant will turn out to be, but scientists are hoping it will prove to be less so than others due to population immunity, Bedford said.
"The omicron outbreak is no longer theoretical," said Dr. Jeffery Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health–Seattle & King County. "It's real, it's here and it's moving fast."
New COVID-19 cases in King County have doubled in the past week, Duchin said. Omicron was first discovered in King County on Dec. 4. Just under two weeks later, 40% of all COVID-19 cases sequenced in UW's labs are likely to be omicron, and the variant appears to be overtaking delta as the most common within the region.
"We now know we have rapid community spread of omicron locally, which is a significant problem because of how many people could be rapidly infected," Duchin said.
Omicron is less resistant to antibody protection lingering from past COVID-19 infections, according to health officials. While vaccines may be less effective in preventing infection, they still prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death, Duchin said.
There are still 160,000 people who haven't initiated their vaccine series and 250,000 people who haven't completed their vaccine series in King County, according to public health data.
"Omicron is going to find many of these people," Duchin warned.
Area hospitals are still full, with many over capacity, according to Dr. Santiago Neme with UW Medicine. Although hospital capacity issues are not solely due to COVID-19 patients, the new omicron surge could put an additional strain on hospitals in the midst of ongoing staffing challenges.
"Any increase in hospitalization will be pretty challenging for us and highly concerning," Neme said. "The healthcare workforce is already overtasked with the number of patients."
Dr. Duchin warned schools could see an increase in cases in students and staff following winter break. He also cautioned businesses and healthcare facilities to prepare for impacts to the workforce due to the upcoming surge.
"I think this is a good time to do serious contingency planning, we don't know what to expect and we do not want to underestimate this virus," Duchin said. "I think we need to prepare for large waves of people becoming ill very quickly together."
"I think people should plan for large-scale absenteeism," he continued. "It's best to be prepared."