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COURT HOUSE - The SARS-CoV-2 virus has done it again. It is back in a new and threatening form. There is no evidence that it is in the U.S. yet, but health experts warn that it may be here, and if not, it will be soon. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Nov. 26 that variant B.1.1.529 is now a variant of concern. They named it omicron. It was first identified in Botswana, has been linked to an “exponential” rise in cases in South Africa, and has already made its appearance in Europe and Asia. 

Omicron appears to be highly transmissible, perhaps even more so than the delta variant, which quickly became the predominant strain of the coronavirus that causes Covid. Medical professionals say omicron has a high number of mutations along its spike protein that could help it evade protections provided by current vaccines. 

Health officials argue that it is likely that current vaccines will remain effective against the new variant, but Moderna announced a new strategy for omicron. 

The U.S. has already put in place restrictions on travel from seven African nations. It is a step that might buy time, but no effective border strategy is going to keep the new variant from reaching the nation. 

It was fear of a new variant that fueled calls for increased levels of vaccination. The virus mutates as it spreads and controlling the spread reduces its ability to do so.  

In a global world with large populations under-vaccinated, variation continues. The next level strategy is to rapidly increase the fully vaccinated population in countries with adequate access to the vaccines.  

Is Cape May County Prepared? 

Cape May County's Nov. 26 report states that 68% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated. Almost one year after the vaccines first made their appearance, the county also has over 16,000 individuals who have received booster shots.  

The percentages sound impressive but work still needs to be done to increase the number of fully vaccinated residents. 

County Commissioner Jeffrey Pierson reiterated that “getting vaccinated and receiving the booster if you qualify is the best protection against the spread of Covid.” 

According to the state Covid dashboard, the county has significant pockets of under-vaccination. The most recent data on the dashboard for the county’s 16 municipalities shows one - Woodbine - at 45% fully vaccinated. It is the only municipality below 50%.   

Five of the 16 county towns are in a range of 50% to 59% fully vaccinated. They are Middle, Dennis, and Lower townships, along with Cape May and West Wildwood. 

Each of these six communities is significantly below the 68% average for the county, as a whole. These are also the communities with most of the county’s population under 18, groups that more recently became eligible for the vaccine. 

Of the other 10 municipalities, four are over 60%, but below 70% fully vaccinated. They are Upper Township, Wildwood Crest, North Wildwood, and Wildwood. That places these towns in line with the county average.  

The remaining five municipalities of Avalon, Stone Harbor, Sea Isle City, Cape May Point, West Cape May, and Ocean City are all listed as above 70% fully vaccinated. 

How Are Things Changing? 

Even without the arrival of omicron, case numbers are once again rising in the county, as they are in much of the Northeast and Midwest sections of the nation. The virus' spread is following the arrival of colder weather in these regions. 

While new case numbers are still below the highs the county experienced during the delta surge in August and September, the number of new cases - 184 - the week ending Nov. 26 was higher than any since early October. The 267 active county cases also represent a high point for November. 

Perhaps the most unwelcome number for the week is the report of 14 active cases in county long-term care facilities, the highest number since August. The state dashboard reports two county facilities with active outbreaks, Crest Haven, in Middle Township, and Autumn Lakes Healthcare, in Ocean View. 

The rise in new cases in New Jersey is not as steep as the increases seen in neighboring Delaware and New York. Yet, cases in the Garden State are climbing.  

At Halloween, the state was seeing 1,158 new cases per day. One month later Nov. 25, that statistic was 2,376 new cases. 

In Cape May County, the average number of new cases in the week just ended was 26.3. This follows a month of weekly average new cases that stayed in the mid-teens. 

Cases are growing again even though the totals are still moderate compared to earlier surges. Health officials point to cooler weather forcing more people indoors. Some are also pointing to an increased complacency brought on by a sense that the pandemic is almost over. 

Omicron could be a sign that a sense of return to a pre-Covid normal may be premature. Even in the face of some significant pockets of public dissent, health officials continue to urge vaccination as the best protection. 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com. 

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