JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are starting clinical trials of a new COVID-19 vaccine, which targets the omicron variant.

This comes as hospitals in Eastern North Carolina, including Onslow Memorial, have seen record-breaking numbers of COVID patients.

Onslow Memorial saw the highest number of COVID-positive patients since the beginning of the pandemic. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steven Spencer said the hospital was prepared for omicron, but no one expected to see numbers like this.

“We heard the stories about South Africa and then the U.K. (United Kingdom) and then we saw the explosion in the northeast around Christmas time,” said Spencer. “We were well aware it was coming. I don’t think that anyone was aware we would reach our highest numbers ever.”

Data from the CDC shows the omicron variant has led to the highest number of emergency room visits and hospitalizations since the pandemic began. Onslow Memorial saw the same trends.

“On Christmas Day we had one COVID patient,” said Spencer. “We are now at our highest level of COVID patients we’ve seen during the entire pandemic.”

As of Wednesday, the hospital had 58 COVID-positive patients. Some of those patients are in the ICU. The vast majority of them are unvaccinated, hospital officials said.

“While it is true that in general the omicron variant has been shown to be less severe, the overwhelming number of cases in our community will lead to a small percentage of those cases being severe,” said Spencer.

This comes as scientists are now monitoring a new version of the omicron variant, which has been detected in Europe, Asia and multiple U.S. states.

“Globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general for the World Health Organization.

Pfizer started clinical trials of an omicron-specific vaccine. The study will look at both a two-dose vaccine course and a booster shot.

“With the mRNA technology that’s in the Pfizer vaccines as well as the Moderna vaccine, we can actually change those vaccines very quickly to treat the additional variants,” said Spencer.

While doctors wait for another possible vaccine, their message remains the same. The current doses still work.

“The vaccine still provides great protection against severe illness,” said Spencer.

Vaccine developers said they always had plans to tweak their original COVID vaccines, as new variants came about. Pfizer’s initial data is expected by June. Moderna is also working on starting trials of its own omicron-specific shot.