CINCINNATI — With the rise of a new COVID-19 variant and an expected seasonal spike in its spread, Hamilton County officials felt the need to again remind residents of key public safety messaging: Get vaccinated, wash your hands and wear a mask.

What You Need To Know

  • Hamilton County officials again remind residents of the importance of masking up and getting vaccinated

  • The numbers of cases is starting to tick upward after months of a downward trend

  • The World Health Organization also warns of the new omicron variant, which appeared in the U.S. for the first time Wednesday

  • Health officials reminded residents that vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and help build herd immunity

Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus voiced frustrations Wednesday during a media briefing on the local status of the pandemic.

Driehaus commented that she stopped hosting regular COVID-19 updates a few months ago because numbers appeared to plateau across the board — cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But she said lower-than-desired vaccination rates, and new concerns heading into the winter and holiday seasons, changed things.

“We pledged to do this as needed. Unfortunately, we’re in that as-needed category right now. Our numbers are going up and there’s concern about a variant, so here we are," she said.

COVID-19 has devastated communitiies across the country for most of the last two years, but there was a sense of optimism during summer months, Driehaus said. Case umbers were down "and stayed down for a while." She said people were getting vaccinated and taking necessary precautions, like wearing masks, to keep others safe.

But that's not the situation anymore.

"Our numbers are going in the wrong direction, at a pretty good clip,” she said, adding that "these are people in our community — our neighbors, our friends, our family, that we are still losing to COVID-19. It's a little bit of a gut check."

There are more than 6,100 known active cases of COVID-19 in the county. That doesn't include asymptomatic people, or those not getting tested. And those numbers are increasing by 211 cases per day, per information from Hamilton County Public Health.

Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman said at first glance it may appear the local numbers took a “dip” over the past few days. But he's "100% confident” those numbers reflect a decrease in testing over the Thanksgiving holiday and the weekend that followed.

The vaccination rate among eligible Hamilton County has reached 72%. Kesterman noted that there's been a recent bump in that number in part due to the recent eligibility of children aged 5 through 11. Still, that number is below the desired county-wide goal of 80%.

Driehaus said she understands that some people may be experiencing a sense of burnout related to masks. She said having to wear one at work sometimes annoys her,\ at times as well. But she said it's what everyone has to do to get through the pandemic.

“We know what to do to try to protect ourselves and others," she said. "The vaccine is at the top of the list, as is wearing a mask, washing our hands" and the other precautions advised by medical professionals throughout the pandemic.

When asked about the status of the staff at Hamilton County Public Health, Kesterman responded: "They're tired."

"It’s been a long nearly two-year journey but that said, we know we have if we continue to work on this message it converts to lives saves.," he added. "We’re tired, but continue on this journey."

That journey hit a detour last week with the announcement that a new variant of the virus, omicron, was found in South Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) said it's still too early to tell how transmissible and severe it is compared to other variants such as delta.

On Wednesday, the White House announced that a person in California became the first in the United States to have an identified case of the COVID-19 omicron variant.

The individual was a traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22, the Associated Press reported. The report said the individual was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving.

WHO officials believe the variant has several mutations that may impact its transmissibility of the severity of the disease it causes, per the AP report. But there isn't yet enough data to know for sure. Getting that information, and deciding next steps could take several more weeks.

"We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president. He added that they're already been in contact with the pharmaceutical companies that make the COVID vaccines.

There have been no reported deaths linked to the new variant.

The omicron variant has not yet made its way to Greater Cincinnati. But its existence provides another reason to get vaccinated and a COVID booster, according to Dr. Stephen Feagins with Mercy Health.

Feagins is an expert in virus mutations. He said mutations occur when they transfer between hosts. Receiving a vaccine lowers the amount of viral load in a person and lessens the likelihood of spread and mutation, he said. It will also help build herd immunity.

"The way we shut down the virus is vaccination and masking. It’s as simple as that," he said.