By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The omicron variant, whose long suspected presence on Guam has finally been confirmed, may be more highly transmissible and can evade immune protection but its threat is less severe than the delta variant, officials said Thursday.
Officials noted that despite the alarming number of new positive cases, hospital admissions have been disproportionately low.
"Omicron also appears to be mild, especially for the vaccinated and boosted," Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said in a video message.
"The trends tell us that omicron burns fast and burns differently from delta. Although these rising case numbers may look like an uphill battle, like I have said, we are prepared and we will continue to stay the course," the governor added.
Since the holiday season, Covid-19 cases on Guam have gone from single-digit to triple-digit daily test results. The Department of Public Health and Social Services reported 729 new Covid cases from 2,785 specimens analyzed on Jan. 19. The highest count, 815, was recorded on Wednesday. Hospitalizations have been relatively low at 27 as of Thursday.
"We are seeing that the percentage of cases causing severe illness is much lower than it was with the delta variant. And vaccines, particularly after a booster shot, remain extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death," the governor said.
She noted that in the pre-vaccination period, Guam's worst days saw Covid hospitalizations exceed 100 with dozens admitted to the ICU, needing a ventilator to breathe. "At times, we mourned multiple deaths a day. With omicron, that is not the case," she added.
While public health officials thought the coronavirus pandemic would have ended last year, Dr. Annette David, chair of the State Epidemiological Outcomes Work Group, said new data quashed such hope.
“In terms of setting expectations, we definitely expect more cases as the days go on,” David said at a media briefing earlier in the day. “We are in the phase where the virus is ubiquitous.”
The raging numbers of Covid-19 positive cases flashed a continuing warning for Guam, she said: “It ain’t over until it’s over.”
Although vaccination may not guarantee full immunity from Covid infections, officials maintain it is a mitigating factor.
“We are seeing a relatively low rate of hospitalizations because we have a high rate of vaccination,” David said.
Keeping hospitalizations in check has been the Public Health sector's “only goal," said Fernando Esteves, DPHSS’s incident commander of Covid response.
Esteves said the public health department has always sought to avoid stressing the island's limited health care infrastructure. "Our focus is to make sure that our hospitals don't collapse," he added.
Esteves said this strategy also applies to the coronavirus testing procedure. In order to maximize the use of limited resources, the public health department seeks to prioritize testing of individuals who are experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, Esteves said.
Delta variant "is more deadly" than omicron, said Dr. Robert Leon Guerrero, chief medical officer at the Department of Public Health and Social Services.
Nevertheless, Leon Guerrero noted that while Guam may be seeing soaring numbers of Covid cases, the situation on island is not as bad as it is in other U.S. jurisdictions, where hospitals are overflowing with coronavirus-infected patients.