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West Virginia officials on Tuesday again pleaded with residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially in light of the discovery of a new variant of the virus.

The World Health Organization on Friday designated the omicron variant, first detected in South Africa, as a “variant of concern.” Global health leaders have voiced worry because of preliminary studies showing the new variant could be more resilient against vaccines and antibody treatments.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar and vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University, said during Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing that there is still much we don’t know about the omicron variant, including if it will become a threat in West Virginia. He said the discovery of the omicron variant is evidence that the COVID-19 virus is capable of mutating at an alarming rate.

In South Africa, Marsh said, omicron is outpacing the delta variant, which currently accounts for nearly all the COVID-19 cases in the United States. If it were to reach the United States and West Virginia, the effects could be devastating, he said.

“Omicron is a completely different virus,” Marsh said. “[Preliminary reports show] it is much stealthier in trying to invade our immune system.”

Marsh said the new variant is no reason to panic, but it should serve as a reminder that COVID-19 is “still active.” Vaccination remains the best defense against the virus, he said. He urged those unvaccinated to get their shots, and those who have been vaccinated to get boosters.

A marked difference between the state’s most recent COVID-19 surge, driven mainly by delta variant cases, and previous surges is in hospitalization trends, state leaders said Tuesday. After previous surges, hospitalization rates would decline, Marsh said. During the most recent surge, they’ve only plateaued, causing continued stress on the state’s hospital system, which is “very strained,” he said.

Hospitalizations totaled 561, five fewer than Monday. Of those hospitalized, 181 are receiving treatment in intensive care units and 96 are on a ventilator.

Of those in the hospital, 76% are unvaccinated. That increases to 82% for people in intensive care and 84% for those on a ventilator.

An additional 781 active cases were reported Tuesday, bringing the total to 5,800 — 191 fewer than Monday. Thirty-one COVID-19 related deaths were reported Tuesday, pushing West Virginia’s pandemic total to 4,868.

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or caity.coyne Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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