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'We're very far from being out of the woods' | Omicron surge leading to highest COVID case numbers of the pandemic

Ohio is averaging over 17,000 new cases per day, the most since the start of the pandemic.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — COVID-19 cases are still surging across Ohio and the omicron variant is proving to be just as contagious as experts feared.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff held a news conference Thursday and said the state is averaging over 17,000 new cases per day - the highest amount seen since the beginning of the pandemic. There are about 2,000 cases per 100,000 people, about 20 times the threshold for "high" community spread.

The per 100,000 figure was as low as 19 in July 2021.

"The numbers demonstrate just how easy omicron is spreading," Vanderhoff said. "This variant is extremely contagious. It's important to know no one is untouchable."

RELATED: Health department opening 2nd COVID-19 testing site in hopes of lessening burden on emergency rooms, urgent care

The increase in infections is putting even more stress on hospitals, where the number of beds and staff are already low. Many hospitals are postponing elective surgeries, including some in northwest Ohio.

Vanderhoff said it's possible cases could come down in the next few weeks - similar to what South Africa experienced - but we're not there yet.

"We're very far from being out of the woods," Vanderhoff said. "COVID-19 is not going away and omicron is not 'just a little cold' for everyone. Lives are still being lost. We've had to say heartbreaking goodbyes to 30,000 Ohioans because of COVID-19."

Close to 2,000 members of the Ohio National Guard are working in 48 hospitals and 15 testing sites across the state. Maj. Gen. John Harris said troops are working in teams of 10 at testing sites and mostly helping with swabbing, but also assisting with traffic control and other logistics.

RELATED: Your vaccination status determines whether you should quarantine if exposed to COVID-19

In the hospitals, their presence has been a welcome sight.

"There's a morale boost and a positive impact on our staff," Dr. Daniel Bachmann, of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said. "I've heard multiple stories and it's just really a morale boost to have them there. This has been a long pandemic, so that impact can't be understated."

Bachmann said the testing sites have alleviated some strain on emergency rooms. Instead of 1,000 people coming to an ER or urgent care looking for a test, the mass testing sites are absorbing them instead.

Finding a test can be challenging, especially after the state announced Wednesday it will stop sending kits to health departments and libraries, and instead send them all to schools. Locally there are two mass testing sites set up at the Lucas County Rec Center and UAW Local 12. 

Lucas County Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski said Wednesday there are plenty of appointments available.

Also Thursday, President Joe Biden announced the federal government is purchasing 1 billion test kits, which will be free to all Americans via U.S. Mail.

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