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High school wrestling tournaments lead to large COVID-19 outbreak, including some omicron cases

FILE - Kristin Grant, a microbiologist on the COVID-19 team at the Washington State Department of Health's Public Health Laboratory, loads samples that tested positive for COVID-19 into a machine that prepares them for automated genome sequencing, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Shoreline, Wash. Data from the sequencing can then help determine which variant of the virus is present.  (Ted S. Warren)

The omicron variant is blamed in part on a COVID-19 outbreak that hit four high school wrestling tournaments earlier this month, and health officials suspect spread of the new variant is inevitable.

“This does not bode well … to have an event so early in the appearance of omicron in Washington state that already has these kids involved with positive cases with this new variant,” Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist, told reporters this week. “It doesn’t look good.”

More than 80 confirmed COVID cases have been traced to the Dec. 4 tournaments, though just three of the cases so far are tied to the omicron variant. But Lindquist said at least 10 more samples could turn out to be omicron.

Lindquist said these are considered probable omicron cases, but they still need to be sequenced to be confirmed.

The four wrestling tournaments were held in Western Washington, but 11 health districts are investigating cases tied to the tournaments, as high schools from as far as Yakima County participated.

The Department of Health has asked all of the health districts with cases connected to the outbreak to submit some positive samples for sequencing.

Studies from South Africa and other countries show that the omicron variant is about 30% more infectious than delta, Lindquist said.

How it will affect hospitalizations in Washington state remains to be seen.

“This is what keeps me up at night,” Lindquist said. “Our hospitals are full – not just from COVID.

“There’s a lot of other factors that go into this, but it’s at the most inopportune time with a new variant we’re not clear will be more severe.”

Preliminary data show that fully vaccinated people infected with omicron have more minor symptoms, and just one of 43 people studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was hospitalized, while no confirmed death from the omicron variant has yet been reported in the United States.

Lindquist said photos and videos from the indoor events show some attendees not wearing masks and packed together. Vaccination, avoiding large indoor gatherings and wearing masks will help control transmission, he said.

It remains unclear how omicron will interact with the vaccines.

But people who tested positive after the tournaments were both vaccinated and unvaccinated. Lindquist hopes the outbreak investigation will help determine who is most at risk of spreading the new variant.

State and local health officials and the governor’s office are meeting to figure out what guidance might need to change, if any, in light of the superspreader events. Lindquist said they are looking at guidance around not just wrestling, but other sports competitions.

Gov. Jay Inslee has not announced plans for further restrictions, but he told reporters Thursday there is always the possibility given how quickly things change with COVID-19.

Inslee said he has no plans to remove any current restrictions, including the mask mandate.

Inslee urged everyone to get their booster shot, as they have shown to be effective against the variant, especially because the omicron variant is “extremely transmissible.”

“That means it’s going to run through us like a firestorm,” he said.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 97 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and three additional deaths.

So far, 1,130 Spokane County residents have died from COVID-19.

There are 70 patients hospitalized in the county with the virus.

The Panhandle Health District reported 75 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.

There are 74 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

S-R reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.