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Why experts say new omicron variant means Utahns shouldn’t wait to get a COVID-19 booster shot

Tanner Davies receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a NOMI/TestUtah vaccination site in Lindon on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.
Tanner Davies receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a NOMI/TestUtah vaccination site in Lindon on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Yes, new versions of the COVID-19 vaccines could be ready to take on the new omicron variant in the next 100 days or so. But no, Utahns shouldn’t put off getting a booster shot against the deadly virus, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician said Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of ifs there and right now, we are being challenged by delta,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem told reporters during a virtual news conference by the region’s largest health care provider about the just discovered omicron variant of COVID-19 that has yet to be detected in the United States.

Little is known about the omicron variant first identified in South Africa, including whether it is more transmissible, leads to more serious disease or is more resistant to the vaccines than the delta variant behind the surge in virus cases in Utah and other states that started over the summer.

Stenehjem said both Pfizer and Moderna have indicated they’re looking at developing vaccines targeted at the omicron variant and would be “about 100 days out” from bringing a product to market, a rapid turnaround enabled by the new technology used.

But he said Utahns need to focus on the variant that’s already in Utah, responsible for 20 new deaths in the state since Monday. The Utah Department of Health also reported 1,195 new COVID-19 cases in the state, but the effects of the Thanksgiving holiday aren’t expected to start showing up in the count until the end of week.

“What I would recommend to people is to get a booster now, and let’s see how this plays out with omicron in terms of the spread to the U.S. and what the impact is,” the doctor said. Before what he called the “potentially scary” new variant emerged, he said modeling suggested there could be a post-holiday decline in Utah cases.

Utah has been among the nation’s hot spots for COVID-19, but case counts have been more or less stuck at high levels, unlike the steep declines experienced by Idaho and some other states following spikes fueled by the delta variant.

That means hospital beds continue to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, most of whom are not vaccinated. New data released by Intermountain Healthcare for 24 hospitals in Utah and surrounding states show 85% of all COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, a number that increases to 87% in the intensive care unit.

While the breakthrough cases of the virus landing Utahns in the hospital tend to be older and medically vulnerable residents who are unable to build up their immunity levels, booster shots help most people get back to the high level of protection initially promised by the vaccines.

“A booster is incredibly important,” Stenehjem said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the list of people who “should” rather than “could” get a COVID-19 booster shot to everyone 18 and older on Monday, but Gov. Spencer Cox had opened up eligibility in Utah to all adults earlier this month, saying they needed the shots because everyone in the state is at high risk.

“We’ve been in that camp a couple of weeks now,” Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said. Utah adults can get their choice of vaccine as a booster six months after their initial series of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two months after their single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Utahns considering holding off on a booster shot until it’s clear how effective it is against the new variant should think again, Hudachko said.

“I would say waiting and seeing just doesn’t make sense. There is plenty of disease out there right now that you can protect yourself against. And it makes far more sense to protect yourself against something that’s currently circulating than something that may or may not circulate in the community sometime down the road,” he said.

Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, expressed confidence that the existing vaccines will fight the omicron variant.

“The vaccines, most likely, are still going to be highly effective,” Kim said. “We should still encourage people to get vaccinated if they haven’t, and get the boosters if they have.”

The professor said the emergence of the new variant should be a reminder that “it’s just a matter of time” before the delta variant is dominated. Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case with the omicron variant, he said people need protection against COVID-19.

“Right now we’re in the midst of a surge with just plain ol’ delta. Omicron, I mean, again, we don’t know much about it, I think folks should be wary because of the numbers increasing with delta,” Kim said, advising Utahns who want to celebrate the holidays safely to get a booster shot soon, since it takes two weeks to become fully effective.

Despite the emergence of the omicron variant, the Salt Lake County Health Department hasn’t seen an increase in demand for COVID-19 booster shots, department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said. He said the department doesn’t plan to promote the vaccines differently until more is known about their effectiveness against the new variant.

“We continue to emphasize that the full series of vaccine plus booster remains the most effective way to protect yourself and those around you from serious illness; all signs indicate that the existing vaccines will provide some protection against omicron,” Rupp said.

While the degree of protection the vaccines will offer against the new variant is currently uncertain, he said “the vaccines are proven to prevent significant illness and death from all known variants to date. Widespread vaccination can also help prevent COVID from further evolving into additional variants of concern.”