With the latest variant of the COVID-19 virus raising new concerns, Bulloch County saw seven more residents pass away in the past week due to the coronavirus.
The Georgia Department of Public Health said COVID was responsible for six probable deaths and one confirmed death since Nov. 22. The county total now stands at 99 confirmed and 118 probable deaths for a total of 217. There have been 93 deaths due to COVID, 43% of the total, since Aug. 10 — 36 confirmed and 56 probable.
The Department of Health also said it is closely monitoring the emergence of a new COVID variant first detected in southern Africa. The variant has not been detected in Georgia at this time.
Named Omicron by the World Health Organization, the variant has a large number of mutations. Scientists are studying the variant to determine how quickly and easily it spreads, whether it causes more severe illness and how well the current COVID vaccines will protect against it.
So far, cases have been reported in such places as Canada, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal.
"What is known is that COVID vaccination helps stop transmission of infection which prevents new variants from emerging," said Kathleen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H., commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. "Vaccination is more important than ever with the emergence of this new variant and the Christmas holidays just around the corner."
According to the Associated Press, President Joe Biden called the new coronavirus variant omicron a cause for concern but "not a cause for panic" on Monday and said he was not considering any widespread U.S. lockdown. He urged Americans anew to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and return to face masks indoors in public settings to slow any spread.
When omicron arrives, and it will, Biden said, America will "face this new threat just as we've faced those that have come before it."
He appealed to the roughly 80 million unvaccinated Americans aged 5 and up to get their shots, and for the rest of the country to seek out booster shots six months after their second dose. He also encouraged everyone to get back to wearing face masks in all indoor public settings — a pandemic precaution that has fallen out of use across much of the country.
Some other nations are reinstating severe travel and business lockdowns to prevent the omicron variant from spreading, but Biden indicated the U.S. was not following suit.
"If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there's no need for lockdowns," he said.
Any omicron-specific vaccine probably could not begin to be produced for another two or three months, so getting boosters now is a "very important initial line of defense," Dr. Paul Burton, chief medical officer for the vaccine-maker Moderna, said Monday.
Burton said Moderna and other vaccine companies are testing existing COVID-19 vaccines to determine how effective they are against the omicron variant.
Local, state numbers
For the third week in a row, East Georgia Regional Medical Center reported on Monday that no patients being treated for the virus needed a ventilator.
Ted Wynn, director of the Bulloch Public Safety/Emergency Management Agency, reported four COVID patients were hospitalized at East Georgia, but no one was on a ventilator.
Bulloch County saw 12 new confirmed cases since last Monday, pushing the total since the pandemic began in March 2020 to 7,921.
Across Georgia, the Department of Health reported 2,945 new confirmed cases since last Wednesday and 57 confirmed deaths. Both new cases and deaths have seen a small decline in the past two weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.