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Wisconsin may be the next state reporting cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 after five people from California attended a Milwaukee wedding were diagnosed with the virus.

State and Milwaukee County health officials are investigating an outbreak of  COVID-19 cases stemming from a wedding in Milwaukee County on Nov. 27. Some of those guests came from California and tested positive for the Omicron variant,  according to a press release by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

No cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been reported. State health officials say the potential cases of Omicron are cause for concern but should not be a cause for panic.

Among the attendees, 12 people from California were diagnosed with COVID-19 after attending the Milwaukee wedding. Five people tested in California were infected with the Omicron variant. Genome sequencing data from the remaining seven cases are not yet available.

“All individuals were vaccinated, and most had received boosters. They are mildly symptomatic and no one has been hospitalized,” the press release reads.

Health officials are working on doing contact tracing to identify people who may have been exposed at the wedding to COVID-19, a virus that resulted in about 1 million cases, 47,000 hospitalizations, and about 9,000 deaths in Wisconsin.

What you need to know about the Omicron variant

The Omicron variant could spread more quickly than the prior version of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that emerged in August, said Karen Timberlake, interim secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

“With that said, Omicron is still a variant of SARS-COV-2,  the virus that causes COVID 19. And as of today, Delta remains the dominant variant in Wisconsin as in the US, and is found in more than 99% of the virus samples that our lab partners evaluate based on what we know today,” she said.

While Omicron seems more transmissible, it does not appear that it makes you sicker than the Delta variant, said Dr. Michael O. Frank, Chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The Omicron variant spread quickly in South Africa, where the population’s vaccination rate is about 35 percent. The virus impacted primarily young people and those who were unvaccinated.

“We’re not sure yet whether Omicron is going to be a huge deal,” Frank said. “It doesn’t appear to be making people sicker. It just spreads more easily the way that Delta spreads.”

Delta variant cases, hospitalizations on the rise

The timing of this new variant isn’t good.

Hospitalizations of people infected with COVID-19 have increased and available hospital beds are in short supply. On Dec. 4, the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported that 41 of the 1,331 ICU beds, 11 of the 778 intermediate care beds and 225 of the 6,246 surgical beds were available for the state of Wisconsin.

The lack of bed availability is due to the rise of Delta variant cases, the severity of the cases, and the higher demand for staff in those cases.

Timberlake underscored this point during the media briefing. For those who are not vaccinated, your chances of being hospitalized with COVID-19 are nine times higher than someone who is not fully vaccinated.  

“With so many hospitals and health care workers already stressed by caring for COVID-19 patients, it becomes increasingly difficult to treat patients who need to come in for other reasons,” Timberlake said. “We want you to seek medical care when you need it. So please do your part by getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu so that we can protect our healthcare workers and preserve space in our hospitals for our friends, neighbors, loved ones and even ourselves.” 

COVID vaccine effective against Omicron

The COVID-19 vaccine effectively prevents severe illness and death for those infected with the Delta or Omicron variants. During the media briefing, Timberlake encouraged residents to get vaccinated and get a booster shot. She also reinforced wearing masks, social distancing,  and handwashing to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Vaccination combined with public health practices, such as wearing a mask, getting tested if you know you have been exposed to COVID-19 or are feeling symptomatic, and staying home when sick, can help prevent further spread,” Timberlake said.

People ages five and up can get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Center for Disease Control also recommends that people ages 18 and older receive a booster of COVID-19 at least six months after their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after their single dose of Johnson & Johnson.

Vaccines are free, and you do not need an ID or health insurance to get one.  To find a vaccine location in your community, visit Vaccines.gov.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.