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Omicron COVID-19 variant discovered in Utah, health officials confirm

Older adult from southwestern Utah had been to South Africa

Microbiologist Samuel Philips sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.
Microbiologist Samuel Philips sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The Utah Department of Health Friday afternoon confirmed its first case of the omicron variant.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Omicron is in Utah.

An older adult living within the Southwest Utah Public Health District that covers Washington, Beaver, Garfield, Iron and Kane counties who had recently returned from South Africa has been identified as the state’s first known case of the new COVID-19 variant.

The Utah Department of Health declined to provide more specifics, but said the person is fully vaccinated against the virus, has received monoclonal antibody treatment and is isolating at home while recovering from mild symptoms.

State epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen told reporters the person had “very limited contact” only with household members since arriving back in Utah. She said she talked to the family to make sure there were no other exposures, including on the trip home from the airport.

“We’ve been able to identify all the people who would be at high risk of exposure,” Nolen said, and are making sure they know “they need to stay at home and monitor themselves for symptoms so that we can really help prevent this from spreading onward.”

State health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said “everybody involved in the case has been extraordinarily cooperative and is following quarantine isolation and testing guidance that we have provided.”

He said a thorough investigation was conducted, including identifying any close contacts.

The person traveled with others to South Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected last week, but they along with other family members have tested negative, Nolen said. She said the person was tested “pretty quickly” after returning home.

The state health department contacted the person because they’d been in South Africa, Nolen said, and fast-tracked the genome sequencing of the individual’s coronavirus test results by the Utah Public Health Laboratory.

Samples from family members in contact with the individual were collected earlier this week, she said. Asked about how concerned Utahns should be, Nolen said the new omicron variant shouldn’t be a higher threat than the already dominant delta variant.

But she said it’s reasonable to be cautious given how little is known about the new variant.

And anyone who recently returned from South Africa and neighboring countries “really should be very cautious about what they’re doing when they return back,” she said, adding that travelers returning from any foreign country should stay home and be tested.

This may not be the first case of the new variant in the state, Nolen said. It has been identified in a growing list of states, from California to New York, and at least one case, in Hawaii, involves someone who has not traveled.

Predictions that omicron likely already in Utah proved true

Earlier Friday, Dr. Andrew Pavia, a University of Utah Health pediatric infectious diseases doctor, warned that if the latest COVID-19 variant wasn’t already circulating in Utah, it would be only a matter of days before it arrived.

Hours later, he was proven right.

No one knows for sure yet just how bad the new variant is going to be, said Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.

That includes for Utah children, who account for about 1 in 5 of the state’s COVID-19 cases, which continue to remain high due to the highly contagious delta variant here since spring, and could go up even more as a result of holiday gatherings over Thanksgiving.

“Kids are at pretty significant risk of disease from COVID in general, and we can’t pretend kids are completely safe,” Pavia said. “But whether omicron is going to be the same as delta, milder, or worse, it’s going to take us a little bit of time to figure out.”

That doesn’t mean Utahns should hold off on getting themselves or their children ages 5 and older vaccinated against the deadly virus, the doctor said, calling it a “real problem” that the estimated 1.4 million Utahns eligible to be vaccinated have not gotten the shots.

“I think delta alone should have been enough reason to get vaccinated. But perhaps concern about omicron should really get people’s attention,” Pavia said, citing new data suggesting the new variant is “very good” at reinfecting those who’ve had COVID-19.

Utahns shouldn’t rely on immunity from an earlier bout with the virus, he said. Getting both fully vaccinated — two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one of Johnson & Johnson — plus a booster shot provides stronger protection, Pavia said.

He said vaccines offer nearly 100% protection for teenagers, according to recent studies. The shots were only recently approved for children 5-11, but the vaccines proved more than 90% effective in clinical trials.

More information is needed, Pavia said, before the age limit for booster shots, now 18 years old, could be lowered. He said it’s possible the vaccines will be reformulated because of the omicron variant, but determining how well they work would take months.

Where else is omicron already in the U.S.?

As of Pavia’s midmorning virtual news conference, 10 cases of the omicron variant had been detected in the United States, in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Hawaii and New York, which reported five cases.

By the end of the day, cases had also surfaced in Utah, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Nebraska and Missouri.

The new variant, first seen a week ago in South Africa, has sparked worldwide travel restrictions and other actions, including a new plan to confront COVID-19 announced Thursday by President Joe Biden calling for more vaccinations and testing.

What is known about the omicron variant is that it’s spreading rapidly.

“We don’t have all the answers on omicron. Anything that we say is based on very early and tentative data. People just need to be patient until we have better science,” Pavia said. “But we know that it’s spread pretty widely around the world.”

Like Utah, public health officials around the country are sequencing COVID-19 test results for the omicron variant. Pavia said he expects in the next few days to find out there’s a lot more of the omicron variant in the United States — including in Utah.

“I think it is highly likely that if it hasn’t reached Utah, it’s a matter of days,” the doctor said, noting that Utah has a better system than many states for identifying variants. “I think it’s in Utah. If it isn’t, it will be soon.”

Utah has ‘the tools to combat omicron’

Even as Utah braces for the omicron variant, Pavia said the risk of more variants emerging is “very high. This virus mutates and it has shown that it’s really flexible. It’s evolving. It’s evolving to become a better pathogen, to be better at infecting us and spreading.”

Still, he said there’s reason for optimism.

“We have the tools to combat omicron. It’s not the end of the world. But we’re not using them,” Pavia said, urging Utahns to get vaccinated, including a booster shot if they’re eligible, and take precautions against spreading the virus such as wearing a mask in public.

“You may be sick of masks, but they’re with us for a while and they really, really make a difference. So go out there and protect yourself,” he said. The doctor said he fears Utah, recently one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots, may see a post-Thanksgiving spike.

That may already be happening, with the Utah Department of Health reporting 1,873 new COVID-19 cases and 19 additional deaths from the virus since Thursday, raising the rolling seven day average to 1,407 more cases daily.

“We’re not done with the delta surge,” Pavia said, adding, “Everyone is focused on omicron and the press is understandably very interested in it. But we’re still getting hammered by delta and we need to get it under control.”

Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said the president’s new plan, which includes hundreds of new family vaccination clinics nationwide and insurance reimbursement for home testing, will help but could have come sooner.

“I think everything he’s doing should have been done months ago with delta. We still don’t know what omicron is going to do, but these programs will be effective in addressing the delta surge right now,” Kim said.

Making at-home testing for COVID-19 more accessible is especially important, the professor said.

“If everyone had cheap and easy access to at-home testing, it’ll go a long way to address surges without completely shutting down the economy.”