Update (2:30 p.m.): Tompkins County Director of Communications Dominick Recckio said “We have not identified an indicator for Omicron in any hospitalized patients to date.” More specific information about what this does and doesn’t answer is below.

Original story:

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Health Department has announced the discovery of at least 133 cases of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.

A health department announcement stated that of 115 samples sequenced from positive tests among the Cornell University community, all were found to be the Omicron variant—and 18 of 44 positive tests that were sequenced after being found in the Tompkins County population outside of Cornell.

The health department stated that further sequencing, which takes place at a Cornell virology lab, is taking place to determine whether other recent COVID-19 positives are also from the Omicron variant. Among the Cornell community, the health department stated that no severe illness had been found, and as stated in the update at the top of this story, there has been no hospitalizations from Omicron to this point. But Recckio acknowledged that not all positive COVID tests are sequenced for Omicron (the ones through the Cayuga Health System and Cornell University are), so there remains a possibility that one or more of the recent deaths, some of which occurred at local nursing homes instead of in the hospital, could be from the Omicron variant.

“[There’s] a high rate of Omicron transmission amongst the 18-24 Cornell University student population and additional prevalence amongst the wider community tested through the Cayuga Health testing site at the mall,” said the statement. The outbreak led the school to close a significant portion of campus to undergraduate students earlier this week.

In terms of active cases, the COVID-19 situation is the worst it ever has been in Tompkins County, with nearly 2,000 active cases, including a new 365 positives reported Friday. However, hospitalizations have remained low according to the health department, as 12 people are now in the hospital with active COVID cases. That’s about one-third the number that were hospitalized in January 2021. But despite that, the county has reported another five deaths this week, including a newly reported death on Friday. Most details were not immediately available, except that the latest death was of an “older adult.”

The Omicron variant is now, clearly, the primary agent of spread among the Cornell community, the health department said, likely meaning it will represent the majority of cases found on the Cornell campus during the recent unprecedented jump in cases: 1,345 cases have been detected during the last week, with a 6.27 percent positive test rate during that time.

“We’re able to see, nearly in real-time, how Omicron is spreading in our community,” Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said. “This is a testament to how important access to testing and sequencing are and how fortunate we are to have partners in Cornell and Cayuga Health committed to ongoing pandemic response and transparency.”

Kruppa urged people to remain cautious, wear a mask indoors and reiterated that the virus is spreading primarily “in settings where people are gathering and not wearing a mask or distancing.” He said the vaccines are still providing effective protection against severe disease.

“We’re now seeing that the Omicron variant is spreading in the wider community and that it is the predominant strain amongst the college student population,” Kruppa said. “We’re seeing the variant spread more rapidly, but we are not seeing it increase the severity of disease of those who are testing positive or increase the number of people hospitalized in our community. […] As our cases have gone up significantly, especially amongst the most highly vaccinated portion of our community, severe disease and hospitalizations have not increased.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com