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Omicron cases rise, personal story shared

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LAKE COUNTY — As of Friday, Jan. 28, I have the dubious distinction of becoming a statistic: one of approximately 233 active COVID cases in Lake County, and 15,713 statewide. I’m also a fully vaccinated and boosterized person who was still susceptible to an infection that “broke through” those protections. 

I’m certainly not alone. On Thursday, my cousin went to the hospital complaining of sharp abdominal pain and wound up in the operating room Friday morning with acute appendicitis… and a positive COVID test. 

A friend, who has been ultra-careful throughout the pandemic because he’s immune-compromised, sliced off a fingertip with a table saw and discovered he had COVID while prepping for surgery. 

My son and his partner in Austin, Texas, have been vigilant and thoroughly vaccinated. Still, they both caught COVID in mid-January.

The good news? We all had relatively mild symptoms or none at all and recovered within a week or so. 

This is a stark contrast to my sister, who caught COVID more than a year ago, before vaccines were available. She spent a miserable 10 days in isolation and was just emerging when she experienced a so-called COVID stroke that’s taken a year to fully recover from.  

Her experience made me roll up my sleeve gleefully last February, and again this fall for a booster. And my brush with COVID – so different than hers – makes me grateful to all those smart people who have spent countless hours, concocting and testing vaccines and treatments for this “novel” coronavirus. 

In short, I attribute my good fortune to science. 

Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, is ridiculously infectious – two to four times more so than Delta – and better at dodging antibodies, both those developed from previous infections and from vaccines. On the up-side, it tends to be less severe, often presenting more like a head cold and scratchy throat, and less apt to take up residence in the lungs. 

That describes my infection perfectly: scratchy throat, mild fever, a day spent lounging in bed, and then gradually regaining my strength and energy.

While my vaccines and precautions weren’t the silver bullet I hoped for, they did a masterful job of keeping me virus free for nearly two years, and out of the hospital and off a ventilator. Those tools also helped prevent my untimely demise from a virus that has so far killed 91 people in Lake County and more than 3,000 statewide, and cost 900,000 Americans their lives. (It’s as if, in less than two years, 90% of Montana’s entire population vanished.)

Home tests – now widely available thanks to federal and state efforts to spread them around – are a boon. I took mine at the kitchen table and within moments, had the positive result I was dreading. 

A very helpful case worker from Lake County Public Health called the following Monday to fill me on COVID protocols: isolate for 5 days after testing positive or showing symptoms. Then, if you’re not registering a fever and haven’t taken a fever-reducer for 24 hours, you can go out in public for the next five days as long as you wear a well-fitting mask. People who can’t or won’t wear a mask for those five additional days, “have to stay home, period,” she said. 

Research shows that the viral load after the fifth day drops substantially, which is why the CDC recently halved its isolation requirements. Mask wearing for an additional five days helps protect others as the virus wanes, she said. 

With the Omicron variant galloping across Lake County, “The truth is all of us should be wearing a mask,” she adds.

Friday’s report at backs up her observation. Among the nine states showing an increase in new COVID-19 cases for the week ending Jan. 30, Montana took the lead with a 66 percent jump to 16,708 new cases. That comes as COVID cases nationwide are finally beginning to subside after a peak that rivaled last winter’s surge.

Omicron is the dominant variant at St. Luke Hospital in Ronan, where Nursing Director Abigail Byers reports that 35% of the tests processed in January were positive. 

“We’ve seen peaks and valleys with cases, but most hospitalizations have been for other reasons,” she said. “We’re hoping that cases are now on a downward trend and cautiously optimistic with the data so far.”

Staff has also noticed an uptick in patients showing up for procedures that are then postponed due to a positive COVID test. The arrival of other winter maladies, including influenza, colds and strep throat, complicates matters.

“Bottom line, if you feel stick, regardless of your test results, it’s wise to stay home so we don’t transmit any disease throughout the community – whether it be the common cold or something more serious,” she says.

This Monday, I can see friends and family again, and know that I’m one of the safest people in the room (at least for the next three months). I find myself hoping, too, that this virus that has draped itself over our lives for nearly two years is finally fraying at the edges, and that its eventual demise might also help end this awful divisiveness that makes us judge each other by the masks we do or don’t wear, the vaccines we did or didn’t get. 

And as it ebbs, maybe our healthcare workers and teachers and other folks who have been coaxing and pleading with us to just take care of ourselves and each other, will get a break. Maybe, one of these days, we can all savor spring, and trust that the particles of air we breathe are no longer our enemies. 


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