After the World Health Organization released information about a new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa, the Dow showed a 900-plus-point drop in post-Thanksgiving holiday trading and President Joe Biden restricted travel into the U.S.

On Nov. 26, trading fell 905 points from the previous close at 35,804.38, 2.5% loss.

Numerous analysts blamed news from WHO about its Nov. 24 warning of another mutation of the COVID-19 virus that has killed nearly 5.2 million worldwide. In Allen County, the Allen County Department of Health reported Nov. 30, another 13 county residents had died of COVID-19, for a total of 876 county deaths.

Geneva, Switzerland-based WHO released updated information Nov. 26 about what is being called the SARS-CoV-2 variant: B.1.1.529, or named the omicron variant, like the previously named delta variant. WHO is naming variants being monitored with letters of the Greek alphabet. The previous one was Mu. It skipped Nu because of its confusion with “new” and Xi because it’s a common surname.

The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behavior of the virus, according to WHO. The TAG-VE was convened Nov. 26 to assess the variant.

The variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on Nov. 24.

“The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterised by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant,” WHO reports. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.”

The first known confirmed infection from the new variant was from a specimen collected Nov. 9.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” according to WHO. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs (variant of concern). The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”

Tests continue to detect this variant so countries are being asked to continue to report data and warn individuals to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including wearing well-fitting masks and performing hand hygiene, physical distancing, improved ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.

Travel restriction

Biden on Nov. 26 issued travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the variant.

“The @WHO has identified a new COVID variant which is spreading through Southern Africa,” Biden’s Twitter account said. “As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries.”

Allen County hospitalizations rising

The news comes during the busy Christmas shopping season when Americans are gathering with family, friends and co-workers for celebrations.

With a steady increase in hospitalizations and positive cases of COVID-19 in Northeast Indiana, Allen County’s health commissioner sent out Nov. 23 a recommendation to use precaution to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Hospitals in Allen County in recent weeks have seen spikes in admissions of patients with COVID-19, leading public health and health care experts to urge residents to take simple precautions such as wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from others and avoiding crowded indoor areas.

“Our current Allen County average daily case rate is 273, which is the highest number we’ve seen since January,” Dr. Matthew Sutter, Allen County health commissioner, said in a statement ahead of the Nov. 25 Thanksgiving holiday. “The hospitals in the county are feeling significant strain and seeing rising admissions for COVID-19.

“We ask for the community’s help to protect our hospitals and our health care workers. It’s important that we socially distance or mask when indoors in public and get vaccinated, when eligible. There are several studies that demonstrate that even for those who’ve been previously infected with COVID-19, vaccines reduce the risk of getting infected and having severe symptoms associated with infection. Booster shots may also be helpful, especially for those over 65.”

The positivity rate in Allen County now is almost 13%, and total daily positive cases have been climbing statewide since October. The statewide daily positive test rate also has risen.

Leaders of each of the region’s hospital systems highlight the important role of the public in ensuring health care facilities are able to serve the community with the highest level of care.

“Lutheran Health Network continues to implement safety measures to protect our patients, caregivers and the community from COVID-19 while serving their immediate and routine health care needs,” said Vishal Bhatia, MD, Lutheran Health Network chief medical officer. “We join our healthcare partners in asking Allen County residents to do the same by getting vaccinated and continuing the use of precautionary measures like masking in public, social distancing and frequent handwashing. Our community’s engagement in these practices can have a significant impact in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and the hospitalizations that can result from the deadly virus.”

Of the nearly 2,300 intensive care unit beds in Indiana, 18% are taken up by COVID-19 patients. In Northeast Indiana, 20% of ICU beds are filled with COVID-19 patients.

“Recently, Parkview Health has seen a dramatic increase in hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to COVID-19,” said Jeffrey Boord, MD, MPH, chief quality and safety officer, Parkview Health. “We continue to encourage residents to follow guidance from the CDC. This includes wearing a face covering in indoor public settings, practicing social distancing and getting vaccinated against COVID-19.”

It is important for individuals with critical needs, including trauma, heart attack, stroke and other emergent issues to seek immediate care. If you have symptoms such as trouble breathing, chest pain or pressure, new confusion, the inability to stay awake, or pale, gray or blue-colored skin or lips, head to the closest emergency room or call 911.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, contact your health care provider to determine appropriate care. COVID-19 testing locations can be found on the Indiana Department of Health website.

In a statement, the Allen County Department of Health said vaccinations are effective and available for those 5 and older. Boosters are available for those 18 and older.

More information on COVID-19 — including local statistics — is available at allencountyhealth.com/COVID-19.

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