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caption: Shiva Sharma, 25, receives a Covid-19 vaccine from volunteer Pharmacist Beth Hykes on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Lumen Field Event Center in Seattle. As of Thursday, anyone 16 years of age and older is eligible.
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Shiva Sharma, 25, receives a Covid-19 vaccine from volunteer Pharmacist Beth Hykes on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at Lumen Field Event Center in Seattle. As of Thursday, anyone 16 years of age and older is eligible.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Omicron is spreading in King County. Health officials expect a 'rapid increase' over the holidays

As the holidays approach and indoor gatherings increase, so does the risk of Covid spread. Officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks, and avoid poorly ventilated spaces – especially as omicron begins to make its rounds.

Thus far, nine cases of the variant have been discovered in King County. Signs point toward community spread of the strain being underway.

Early reports suggest omicron could be less likely to lead to hospitalization than the delta variant, (this could be because the virus is moving through younger people at higher rates right now). But current evidence also suggests omicron may spread more easily.

“It spreads through the air the same way as delta – only a whole lot better,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County’s public health officer during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Vaccines are the most important thing we can do to reduce our risk, but they must be used in combination with other strategies.”

Locally, the delta variant is still running the show. But Duchin said he expected “to see a rapid increase in omicron cases over the coming days and weeks.”

“The number of cases in several countries that recognized omicron earlier than the U.S. is doubling every two or three days,” Duchin said. “And there is an increasing number of large outbreaks being reported including where both vaccinated and unvaccinated people become infected.”

Duchin said he expects to see more breakthrough cases, both among vaccinated people and those who were previously infected with Covid. But he pointed to preliminary research indicating that vaccinations – especially when recently boosted – offer significant protection from severe sickness.

“If you’re vaccinated, if you’re taking precautions to reduce your risk, you should feel cautious," he said. "But you should feel optimistic and reassured that you have a very strong level of protection.”

The current outlook, Duchin said, is that eight King County residents per day – that’s one person every three hours – are being hospitalized with Covid. Since January 17, 2021, 89% of people hospitalized with Covid haven’t been fully vaccinated, with the same demographic making up 86% of Covid deaths, he added.

But there’s good news: The latest data show that there’s been a roughly 70% decrease in hospitalization rates since a surge of cases of the delta variant peaked in King County over the summer. However, officials worry that a surge in Covid-19 patients in the colder months could severely strain the state’s hospital system, which is currently overrun with long-term care patients.

RELATED: 'Bursting at the seams.' WA hospitals feel the pinch of long-term care shortages

Duchin said the county has no imminent plans to increase Covid restrictions. He said he was optimistic that any surges in Covid cases this winter could be contained by the spring.