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Omicron variant: ‘We knew this was coming,’ Utah doctor says of new COVID-19 strain

Utahns advised not to fear omicron — yet

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Microbiologist Samuel Philips sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The emergence of a troubling new COVID-19 variant dubbed omicron shouldn’t frighten Utahns — at least not yet.

“At this point, I would tell people not to be scared,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, told the Deseret News, predicting it will take “a number of weeks” before more is known about omicron, labeled by the World Health Organization as the first “variant of concern” since the delta variant.

So far, omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, although after first being seen in South Africa, it is starting to surface in Europe and other parts of the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s chief medical adviser, said over the weekend omicron “inevitably” will show up in the United States.

President Joe Biden attempted to reassure Americans on Monday, as his administration’s new restrictions on travel to the United States from South Africa and surrounding nations took effect. Other countries, including Israel, Morocco and now Japan, have closed their borders to all foreign visitors.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” the president said. With preparations already underway to modify vaccinations and booster shots if needed, Biden said. “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”

Citing the new variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending all adults 18 and older get a COVID-19 booster shot, six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after their single-dose J&J vaccine. Previously, the CDC said only older or high-risk Americans should get the shot.

Omicron’s spike protein mutations, blamed for a surge in cases in South Africa, are some three times greater than what was seen with the delta variant that started raging across the United States last summer and continues to drive Utah’s high COVID-19 transmission rates filling hospital intensive care units.

Fauci said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that while more data is needed, the new variant’s mutations suggest not only that omicron is highly transmissible, but that it “might evade ... perhaps even antibodies that are induced by vaccine.”

Microbioligist Ann Gariety sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville.

Microbioligist II Ann Gariety and fellow Microbiologist II Samuel Philips, work at sequencing COVID-19 samples for variants at the State Lab in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Stenehjem said that will take time to determine but noted it took months for the delta variant to become dominant. The delta variant that sparked a surge in cases over the summer just as many hoped the pandemic was nearing an end was first detected in India in December 2020, but did not surface in Utah until last spring.

“We know very, very little. I mean, this was only first identified last week out of South Africa,” the Utah doctor said. “We knew this was coming. We knew delta wasn’t going to be our last variant. ... We’ve got the tools that we need to evaluate how it’s going to impact us.”

In the meantime, Stenehjem advised Utahns to keep taking the same precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 — with everyone 5 and older getting vaccinated against the virus at the top of the list, followed by wearing masks and social distancing in public places, and frequent hand washing.

Those are steps that should be taken even without the threat of a new variant, he said, given that Utah continues to be among the nation’s hot spots for COVID-19. Until recently, Utah and other Intermountain West states had some of the highest case counts in the United States.

“We should probably be having that same discussion about what’s happening right now, here in the state of Utah, and the fact that we’re still at 100% ICU bed capacity before we are feeling the impact of a national holiday,” Stenehjem said. “We’ve got much bigger fish to fry here in the state of Utah than worrying about omicron.”

Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen also said the focus should be on what’s already happening in the state, not on what omicron could bring.

“Utahns need to be concerned because we do have a lot of COVID. We have our hospital overwhelmed. We have a lot of transmission. And that’s without the new variant,” Nolen said. “We need to keep on what’s happening. But everybody just needs to keep doing the best that they can to prevent the spread.”

The Utah Department of Health is already testing for the latest variant, she said. The Utah Public Health Lab conducts genome sequencing on about a quarter of the positive PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests conducted in the state, approximately 1,500 every other day.

Nolen said the state was already looking at boosting the number of PCR tests conducted even before omicron emerged since rapid testing misses “a fair number” of positive cases, especially among those who are not showing symptoms.

She encouraged Utahns to get a PCR test to “make sure you’re not walking around with the new variant.” She said “it’s exceptionally unlikely” the new variant would not appear in Utah. “No matter what this is, we should all take COVID seriously. We don’t need a variant to make things terrible.”

Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, said he expects results in a week or two from initial testing being done to determine if the vaccines offer similar protection against the omicron variant as they do against the delta variant.

“That would be very reassuring, that the protection might be adequate or just as good as we have right now,” he said. But even if the antibody levels produced against the new variant aren’t as high, Swaminathan said there are other factors that could still provide protection.

It will take longer to determine whether there will be more breakthrough cases of the omicron variant, he said. There’s also the possibility that the omicron variant “may even peter out. That would be the best thing to hope for. Some of the other variants that have been detected have not taken over like delta has.”

If the existing COVID-19 vaccines need to be tweaked to be more effective against the omicron variant, Swaminathan said that could be done within months because of the new technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna shots. That might mean additional booster shots rather than a new series of vaccine.

Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said the mutations that make up the omicron variant do warrant concern but it’s too soon to say whether it will dethrone the delta variant because it’s not clear whether it’s more transmissible or able to bypass antibodies.

“Here’s the thing. I mean, so far, that’s all it is,” Kim said, “We don’t know what the functional effect of those mutations are. You’ve got to understand, just because there are genetic changes doesn’t mean we can predict the actual response of that virus.”