Much more to learn about new variant, but officials say public health message doesn’t change
Biden says omicron variant a “cause for concern, not for panic.”
Just as Colorado seems to be starting to come down from a monthslong surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the more transmissible delta variant, a new variant of the virus is raising alarm across the world.
Officials say there is a lot that remains to be known about the omicron variant, and that fact may be the most important thing to know right now. Still, after the variant was publicly announced last week, a host of countries, including the United States, started restricting international travel.
“Sooner or later, we are going to see cases of this new variant in the United States,” said President Joe Biden in an address from the White House on Monday. “This variant is a cause for concern, not for panic.”
This variant has had such a strong reaction because of the number of mutations it has — though what specifically those mutations mean is still being studied. What isn’t known is how transmissible this new variant is, how well current vaccines will be at preventing it and how severe individual cases are.
Named for the Greek letter “omicron” by the World Health Organization, the variant was first found in southern Africa earlier this month and appears to have fueled a rapid spread of COVID-19 in that country. The first positive case of the variant was tested for the virus Nov. 9, according to a statement from WHO updated Monday.
The variant has now surfaced in nearly a dozen different countries, but WHO said most of these cases have been attributed to travel and not spread in these countries, though that is expected to change.
Despite travel restrictions and other attempts to stop the variant before it spreads, local officials said it is likely only a matter of time before cases of this variant are found in the U.S..
“We live in a global world; it has probably already spread,” said Lauren Bryan, infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. “This travel ban is cute, and I appreciate that they are trying to be proactive and try to study it, but something that is as contagious as COVID has been, it’s already here.”
One thing that may slow when that case of the virus is found is the large backlog of positive COVID-19 tests waiting to be processed and sequenced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Bryan said. Not all COVID-19 tests are fully sequenced for variants, but many PCR tests like the ones taken at the hospital are sent to the state lab.
“COVID-19 is most likely going to continue to be with us. Part of that continuation is the emergence of variants, and each time a variant is identified, it should not be cause for panic,” said Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith. “The best thing that people can do is get their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.”
On Monday, WHO said omicron is a highly divergent variant, meaning there are simply a lot of mutations. Some in particular have them concerned the variant “may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility.”
“The challenge is that we don’t have enough data to necessarily know,” Bryan said. “It looks like it could be more transmissible, but we’ve done that before. Alpha was more transmissible than the ancestral strain; delta more transmissible than alpha.”
Bryan said the virus that causes COVID-19 compared to other viruses is really big, giving it a lot of opportunity to mutate as it spreads.
“This one has like 30,000 different sequences in it, and it mutates all the time. It’s what a virus does,” Bryan said. “It makes little genetic errors, and the bigger the sequence of the organism, the more errors it can make.”
A variant like this popping up in a lower-income country with lower vaccination rates isn’t surprising, Bryan said, as these places simply have a lot more of the virus spreading and a lot of chances for the virus to mutate.
Vaccination rates in Africa are low, with South Africa having one of the higher rates at nearly a quarter of the population fully vaccinated. Botswana, another country where the variant was found, is 20% fully vaccinated, but 38% have received at least their first dose.
“Where there is low vaccine uptake, there will be a higher number of hosts, and that means a higher number of mutations,” Bryan said.
As for how much this new strain should alarm locals, Bryan said she is currently planning a trip for blues break, and she isn’t going to stop because of news of the new variant — though she did say she is going to get travel insurance.
Recommendations for how to protect one’s self from the variant have not changed, as the protocols for respiratory viruses are tried and true.
“The public health message does not change,” Smith said. “Get your COVID-19 vaccine, stay home when you are sick, wash your hands, make sure you are in well ventilated rooms or outdoors for gatherings, limit your gatherings, (and) wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces. The layered approach will help us with this respiratory disease.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Since Christmas, about 6% of all Routt County residents have tested positive for COVID-19. About a quarter of all cases locally since the start of the pandemic have come since Dec. 26.