SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Omicron is driving case numbers up in South Dakota following the holidays. While the variant is moving quickly across the country, doctors in South Dakota are warning that we may be dealing with this current wave of COVID-19 well into February before case numbers, and hospitalizations, trend down again.

Active cases of COVID-19 in South Dakota reached a new high Wednesday with 2,708 new cases reported. The number of active cases is now at 22,743 with 9,107 of those cases in the Sioux Falls area.

The Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Dakota on Dec. 22, appears to be the main factor behind this surge in cases and hospitalizations. KELOLAND News spoke with doctors from Avera Medical Group and Sanford Health to better understand why this current wave of COVID-19 infections is different than previous waves.

The speed with which Omicron took over from Delta has left health systems struggling to keep up with the sharp increase in cases over the last few weeks.

“It took probably six, eight, weeks for Delta to take over, and Delta was more contagious than the previous version had been, and it took it six to eight weeks,” Dr. David Basel with Avera Medical Group told KELOLAND News. “Omicron took over from Delta in one to two weeks.”

COVID-19 cases in South Dakota had been steadily increasing throughout the fall due to the Delta variant, but things took a sharp turn in December when Omicron appeared in the Midwest.

For the Avera Health system, Dr. Basel with Avera Medical Group, says they went from 150 to 200 positive cases a day, to between 800 and 1,000 positive cases.

“Even when we had our huge peak in November of ‘20, we’re having more positive tests now on a daily basis than we had then,” Dr. Basel said.

At the height of the 2020 winter surge, active cases in South Dakota peaked at 19,360 on November 15, 2020. Wednesday, cases reached 22,743 in the state.

At Sanford Health, Chief Physician Dr. Jeremy Cauwels is keeping an eye on hospitalization numbers for all visits, not just COVID-19.

Dr. Cauwels has noticed one main difference in the previous waves of COVID-19 and now: less hospitalization of COVID-19 patients.

“There’s not as many COVID patients in the hospital but we see a huge influx in influenza, which we didn’t have anything before,” Dr. Cauwels said.

Sanford’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) is currently full. Three of the children in the PICU are “very ill” with COVID-19 while about seven others are sick with the virus, according to Dr. Cauwels.

“I think because the Omicron variant is so infectious, it’s very good at getting to those 5 and under kids who don’t qualify for a vaccine,” Dr. Cauwels said.

But, both Dr. Cauwels and Dr. Basel are optimistic about current hospitalizations. So far during this surge, both health systems are seeing less people needing ICU care due to the milder Omicron variant.

“Less people are coming in that need to be ventilated,” Dr. Cauwels said.

In a tweet Wednesday, Sanford shared the latest COVID-19 hospitalizations that show hospitalizations are remaining consistent within the health system.

Compared to last week’s update, COVID-19 hospitalizations at Sanford Health remain at 201. The number of people in the ICU dropped from 64 last week, to 60 Wednesday. And the number of people on ventilators is down to 44 from 51 last week.

While cases increase, Dr. Basel has been encouraged so far that hospitalizations at Avera remain low in comparison to the amount of daily positive tests being reported in the health system. But he warns that hospitalizations often lag a week behind surges in new daily cases.

“We’re anticipating that it’s going to be a good month worth of pain coming through here. We anticipate that it’s [peak] still several weeks off,” Dr. Basel said.

While the hospital system has remained consistently at, or near, capacity at Avera, Dr. Basel did note that recently the clinics, particularly urgent care clinics, are seeing an increase in visits.

“What feels different right now is just the uptick in the clinic volume, especially the urgent care volume, our ED volume,” Dr. Basel said. “Because there are just so many people that are getting COVID symptoms and trying to get tested and trying to figure out what to do when they test positive.”

According to Dr. Basel, Avera did not see this much activity at the clinics even during the November 2020 peak.

When it comes to COVID-19 in schools, cases are also surging. In this week’s update from the South Dakota Department of Health, active cases of COVID-19 in K-12 Schools nearly doubled, jumping from 661 active cases in last week’s update to 1,189 cases.

The chart below compares the two most recent updates from the Department of Health on COVID-19 in schools and on college campuses.

This week marks a new high in cases during the 2021-2022 school year across the state.

Schools in Worthington (Minnesota) and Tea reimplemented mask mandates this week due to a rise in both COVID-19 and flu cases.

On Monday, the Vermillion School District reimplemented their mask mandate. The mandate will end January 23 if COVID-19 cases drop below a 1.5% positivity rate in the schools.

When KELOLAND News reached out to the Sioux Falls School District (SFSD) to discuss the rise in cases in the district we received the following response:

We are not scheduling interviews regarding COVID.  We are meeting the needs of students, staff, and schools at this time with the processes outlined in the Continue to Learn (C2L) Plan.

DeeAnn Konrad, Community Relations Coordinator for SFSD