The Allegheny County Health Department has confirmed the first local cases of the highly contagious omicron variant. The first case is from a specimen collected Dec. 7 from an adult male, confirmed to be omicron on Wednesday. The second case was from a specimen collected Dec. 13 and confirmed Thursday.

At a Wednesday press briefing, Health Director Dr. Debra Bogen said evidence of the variant had already been found in wastewater samples but did not officially confirm any omicron cases.

COVID-related hospitalizations remain high, even though they have slightly decreased since their peak in late November and early December, Bogen said. The county has reported 97 COVID-related deaths since the beginning of the month. 

“These deaths are as tragic as they are unnecessary and premature, and it breaks my heart to see people die because of misinformation, to see them refuse life-saving therapy. The vaccines work and are doing their jobs,” Bogen added.

Bogen expects cases to remain high as the omicron variant – the most common strain of the virus nationwide – spreads in western Pennsylvania.

As the omicron variant spreads, Bogen said the best way to protect against the virus is to get vaccinated, including booster doses for those who are eligible. As of Dec. 22, nearly 783,000 Allegheny County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. More than 288,000 residents have received vaccine booster doses, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health

Bogen also encouraged Allegheny County residents to wear masks, especially when attending indoor gatherings throughout the holiday season. 

“This is about individual and collective responsibility,” Bogen said. “The simple fact is that masks reduce transmission of the virus, and you don’t need a mask mandate to do the right thing.”

The county will no longer contact people who test positive for COVID-19 unless they are above age 50, below age 5 or contract a case from an identified outbreak.

“We made these changes because we’ve been at this for nearly two years,” Bogen said. “Fewer people respond to our calls and many people are now conducting tests at home, and therefore we don’t have that information about their results.”

— By PublicSource intern Amelia Winger

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PublicSource has been tracking COVID-19’s spread on a daily basis since March 2020. More than a year later, in an effort to direct our resources into enterprise reporting on the pandemic and other important issues, we will cover the Allegheny County Health Department’s weekly briefing on Wednesdays and update the numbers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We may adjust as the prevalence of the coronavirus ebbs and flows. If you have questions or comments, please email PublicSource’s managing editor