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How soon could omicron become the dominant COVID-19 strain in Utah?

Omicron is ‘more efficient at causing infections, and it’s able to outcompete delta,’ doctor says.

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Corey Lewis waits to receive a COVID-19 test.

Corey Lewis waits to receive a COVID-19 test at the Cannon Health Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Utah officials are concerned about the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The new highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19 could become the dominant strain of the virus in Utah, maybe even the entire country, as early as New Year’s Day.

“The relative proportion of omicron to delta has been doubling every two to three days,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare.

That’s consistent with what doctors currently know about omicron, a variant that is two to three times more transmissible than delta.

It means omicron is “more efficient at causing infections, and it’s able to outcompete delta,” Webb said.

“We have fairly accurate projections now that by the first of the year, omicron will be the dominant variant throughout the United States, and Utah as well,” he said.

There are still only seven confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Utah as of Monday, according to the Utah Department of Health, which reported 2,500 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend.

That number is most likely a sliver of the actual omicron cases in the state. “We don’t sequence every single test result,” said Jenny Johnson with the Utah Department of Health.

“If omicron is doubling at a faster rate than delta is, you can see seven go to 14, and 14 go to 28 pretty quickly, right?” she said.

The delta variant is still the dominant strain in Utah, with omicron likely accounting for between 3% and 6% of COVID-19 cases, Webb said.

“With that doubling every two to three days, we’re several weeks away from that becoming the dominant stain throughout the United States and Utah,” he said, noting that in northeastern states, roughly 20% of COVID-19 cases are from omicron.

Is omicron more serious than the delta variant?

There are two elements of omicron that Webb is worried about — transmissibility and severity.

Omicron has over 50 mutations, he said, meaning it has an advantage over other variants — it can “outcompete delta.”

Webb also said omicron is “extremely effective at causing infections in the large airways of the lungs, to a much greater degree than the delta variant.”

That enhances the variant’s transmissibility, with patients typically having a “very high level of virus,” he said.

Whether the variant is more or less severe has been the subject of debate. Webb said early data from South Africa provided some hope, where cases were high but hospitalization and death rates were relatively low when compared to other waves.

That data has now been supplemented by a larger, more holistic sample size.

“Unfortunately, the hospitalization rates in South Africa and United Kingdom have now shot up. Which effectively demonstrates that the omicron variant likely does not have a lower severity potential than delta,” Webb said.

What are the main symptoms of the omicron variant?

Although the symptoms are similar to other variants of the coronavirus, here are the top five things people experience with omicron:

  • Runny nose.
  • Headache.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sneezing.
  • Sore throat.

Those symptoms overlap with other seasonal respiratory illnesses, and with rising cases of influenza around the state, Webb encouraged anyone who has those symptoms, or was exposed to someone who did, to “test frequently and test early.”

A British doctor also recently told reporters that patients infected with the omicron variant have night sweats.

“Those kind of drenching night sweats where you might have to get up and change your clothes,” said Dr. Amir Khan, speaking to ITV, a British television network.

Doctors have said patients with the omicron variant have a “scratchy throat” as opposed to a sore throat, a dry cough and severe body aches.

Can this be considered a fifth wave?

Without question, Webb said, the rise of the omicron variant could be considered a fifth wave of the coronavirus.

“We’re going to see the same pattern we’re starting to see in Europe and in the northeast states where this will be a fifth wave — and in some cases, it’s piggybacking on a fourth wave that never remitted completely,” he said.

With Christmas looming, and millions of Americans gearing up for travel and vacations with extended family, the holidays could accelerate the spread of omicron in Utah and throughout the U.S.

“We’re bracing for a very fast surge. It’s a matter of when at this point,” Johnson said.

“It’s definitely concerning when you have the potential for a lot more gatherings over an extended period of time, and a lot of travel, potentially to areas where omicron is surging more than it is here,” she said, noting that the department has ramped up its testing after increased demand.

Over the weekend, more than 47,000 Utahns were tested for COVID-19. That’s over 15,000 more tests conducted than the last weekend of November.

Are Utah hospitals prepared?

The issues plaguing Utah’s hospitals for months now haven’t eased up, especially with the increased prevalence of influenza. COVID-19 ICUs are still near 100% capacity, and Webb said Intermountain is seeing record volumes of medical floor admissions. Hospitals are already being strained, and Webb said omicron could make that worse.

“Hospitals across the state remain at or above capacity, and going into the next month that’s concerning because we’re projecting the omicron variant will significantly burden health care systems because of its transmissibility,” he said.

The volumes at Intermountain hospitals throughout the last few months is similar to the winter of last year, Webb said. But there are a few differences.

Far more Utahns are vaccinated against COVID-19. At this time last year the shot was available only to a select few. Webb said the efficiency and creativity of caring for COVID-19 patients has also changed.

But the biggest difference now compared to last winter isn’t one that will improve patient care, and several of the state’s largest hospitals continue to grapple with employee shortages.

“We have significant shortages in not just nursing, but also respiratory technologists and other allied health care professionals. And those that are working, are fatigued,” Webb said.

Staffing was an issue during last winter’s surge, he said, but not to the degree Utah hospitals are seeing now.