RICHMOND, Va. -- With health officials around the world raising concern about the newly discovered omicron variant of COVID-19, a local health expert said it is important to acknowledge what we do and do not know about it at this point.
The first reported case of omicron was confirmed in South Africa in early November and the growing number of infections related to the strain there and across the globe caused the World Health Organization to label it a “variant of concern.”
There have been zero confirmed cases of omicron in the U.S., but Dr. Michale Stevens, the Interim Epidemiologist at VCU Medical Center said he expects that will change soon.
“You see new reports about where it's spread in the world, almost every hour. So you know, as of this morning, there have been a couple of cases identified in Canada. This is not surprising, it's probably already fairly widespread, but we don't know to what extent that's true,” Dr. Stevens said.
“We really need to have a better understanding of how infectious and transmissible this new variant is, do our vaccines and our drugs work against it? How sick are people going to get with this? And then what can we do to protect ourselves.”
World and U.S. health officials are studying whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than even the delta variant and how effective the vaccines will be against it. Dr. Stevens said he expects they will still provide “significant protection.”
“Omicron has a lot of mutations, especially in the spike protein, and that's that key that allows the virus to enter into our cells. And that's also the target for a lot of the vaccines and therapies that have been developed. So there's concern, but it's theoretical concern that those vaccines and the therapies may not be as effective,” he said. “Now, what I will say is, immunity is quite complex. And so it is highly probable, the vaccines still will provide at least some effectiveness against even this strain. We don't know for sure yet. But I’m highly optimistic that the vaccines are going to provide some significant protection against this variant.”
Dr. Stevens and other health officials said current diagnostic testing for COVID-19 does detect the omicron variant, which is good news. He encourages anyone worried about infractions to get tested immediately.
“If you develop any kind of respiratory symptoms now, shortness of breath, cough, sore throat, runny nose, you really should quarantine, you should isolate, and you should get tested for COVID. And that's especially important now that we're concerned about new variants, which could potentially represent something like omicron.”
New COVID infections in Europe and parts of the U.S. were already on the rise as winter weather settles in, even before omicron. Dr. Stevens said it makes the tried and true routine all the more important: wear a mask in a public setting where social distancing is not possible and get your vaccine or booster dose.
“You saw with delta, that emerged in India before there was widespread vaccination there. This is emerging in southern Africa to the best of our understanding, again, in an area where there's low population level vaccination rates. We need to approach this as a global community. If we want to stop seeing surges, we want to stop seeing the emergence of new variants. That's really what we have to have to do,” he said.
VCU Medical Center is already seeing an uptick in flu infection compared to last year, so Dr. Stevens wants to remind people to get a flu shot too.
“The best thing people can do is to get vaccinated against COVID, get your flu shot as well. Because when you develop symptoms, you're not going to know what you have. So, it's important to protect yourself as much as you possibly can against both of these viruses,” he said.
At the community vaccination/booster clinic at the Arthur Ashe Center Monday, several people said they are closely monitoring the omicron variant.
“I don’t know, I’ll just let it play out and hopefully next year things will be more under control,” said Charley Appich.
“It’s been spotted now in Europe and even in Canada. That means it’s probably here in the U.S.,” said Angela Ciccolo. “The virus has not boarder. It really can go anywhere so we have to do what we can to protect ourselves and our neighbors.”