Sixty-one Tallapoosa County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last seven days, according to Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) data, the highest of all 67 counties in Alabama relative to population.
As of Tuesday, the county is one of 26 statewide rated "high" by ADPH for overall community transmission, with 11.2 percent of tests in Tallapoosa County coming back positive in the last week.
The recent upswing parallels the rise of the omicron variant, which has recently snowballed to overtake the delta variant as the dominant strain in the United States. In seven days, the proportion of new COVID-19 cases nationwide that were omicron grew from about 3 percent to 73 percent Monday, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracker that updates weekly. The swift rise comes less than one month after the first U.S. case known to health authorities was detected, on Dec. 1.
While the prairie states and New England are still majority-delta, omicron now dominates the southeast. Within the CDC's "region four" — which contains Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas — the omicron variant made up 95.2 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the past week.
Despite the high figure, the first omicron case in Alabama was detected only Thursday, according to an ADPH statement. The patient, who lives in west Alabama, had no reported history of recent out-of-state travel.
Preliminary studies on the effects of the omicron variant have so far been contradictory. A study out of South Africa, the first country to report the variant, suggests that while omicron is more transmissible and more vaccine-resistant than the delta variant, the risk of hospitalization or death is lower.
However, an Imperial College London study released in the United Kingdom last week found the omicron variant no less likely than the delta to lead to symptoms or hospitalization. The limited-sample study has yet to be peer-reviewed.
On Tuesday, the Harris County health department in Texas reported what is believed to be the first death in the U.S. linked to the omicron variant. The man in his 50s was unvaccinated, the health department said in a statement.
Health authorities including the CDC and ADPH have continued to stress the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots, which are available to adults six months after their second Pfizer or Moderna dose or two months after their Johnson & Johnson dose.
"We still have more to learn about omicron, but the most important thing we can do right now is to use the tools we have available to make it as hard as possible for this virus to spread," state health officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a Dec. 16 statement. "In addition to vaccination and boosters, we can slow the spread of this variant and all COVID-19 variants by using the tried-and-true prevention methods of wearing masks, staying home when sick and getting tested when appropriate."