Registered nurse Steve Donnell helps a care team move a COVID-19 patient into a new bed in the medical intensive care unit. Credit: University of Mississippi Medical Center Communications

The omicron variant is now the dominant strain in Mississippi and is causing a significant increase in case numbers across the state. 

In a press briefing Wednesday, the Mississippi Department of Health said case numbers for the last seven days are double what they were the week before, and since Dec. 20, 67% of cases in Mississippi have been caused by the omicron variant. 

“We really are now in the fifth wave of COVID for Mississippi,” said Dr. Paul Byers, state epidemiologist. 

The Department of Health has been working to expand access to testing in areas with high demand and has increased the number of available testing slots across the state by 5,000 since Sunday night up to 20,301 slots. Around 13,000 of those slots were filled at the time of the briefing. Testing is also available through local physicians’ offices and clinics. 

To make an appointment for the Health Department’s free testing, click here. 

Jim Craig, director of the office of health protection, said that while Mississippi does not currently have a shortage of test kits, he expressed concern about the ongoing healthcare worker shortage in the state, part of a larger national trend. There have been 1,700 covid-related emergency room visits across the state during the first few days of this week, he said.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the omicron variant is significantly more contagious than previous forms of the virus, but evidence does suggest that omicron causes less severe illness. He also said that vaccinated people and those with prior infection can still get and spread omicron. 

Throughout the briefing, Dobbs and Byers emphasized that getting a booster shot is the best way to get full protection against omicron. Currently, 48% of Mississippians are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health. Schedule a vaccine appointment through MSDH here.

READ MORE: Mississippi Today’s COVID-19 Vaccine Guide

Monoclonal antibody treatments, which were a critical part of the fight against the delta variant, are generally less effective against omicron. One type of monoclonal antibody has still been effective, but Mississippi currently has a limited supply. Dobbs said that antiviral pills and an increased supply of monoclonal antibodies will be coming soon, but in the meantime, it is important to wear a mask and get vaccinated and boosted.

“We’ve always said that monoclonals are Plan B and the vaccine is Plan A, and you don’t want to rely on your backup plan when Plan A is still an option,” Dobbs said. 

Byers and Dobbs also addressed the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance announced Monday, saying that the Department of Health has always followed CDC guidance and it was safe to exit a quarantine after five days as long as a COVID-positive person continues to wear a mask at all times. 

“This is really a love thy neighbor sort of moment,” Dobbs said.

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.