You most certainly have heard all the panicked talk of the newest COVID-19 variant on the block: Omicron, first identified in South Africa, famous for its myriad mutations and for sparking a stock market plummet and travel restrictions across the globe. News that the variant has already been identified in 20 states and counting—including our neighbors California and Washington—makes clear that it could be only a matter of time before Oregon is added to that list.
So what do we know already?
Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization on November 24, detected in specimens collected in Botswana and South Africa. The first confirmed US case was identified on December 1. The CDC says the variant “likely will spread more easily” than the original virus. COVID tests—both rapid antigen tests and PCR—still work for the Omicron variant.
What is Oregon doing to keep an eye out for the variant in our state?
According to the Oregon Health Authority, a sample of tests collected throughout the state is sent to the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory and to university labs for genetic sequencing. Wastewater surveillance is also used as an early detection system and was useful for identifying Delta's prevalence in the past.
Should we be worried?
Most experts caution against any conclusions, given that so much is still unknown. We’ll understand more in the coming weeks about whether Omicron is either evading vaccine or previous infection protections, and whether it causes more or less serious illness than previous variants. Early results from a new Pfizer BioNTech study indicate that the original two dose vaccine alone may not be enough to prevent infection, but those with three doses showed neutralizing antibodies against Omicron. Furthermore, some initial studies indicate that Omicron may in fact be less severe than previous variants though experts still caution that it’s too early to tell.
What can Oregonians do while we wait for more information?
“The best recommendations continue to be: get vaccinated, get boosted (especially before we head into the winter months), wear a mask indoors and physically distance when possible,” says Dr. Thomas Jeanne, deputy state health officer and deputy state epidemiologist, and Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations at Oregon Health Authority (OHA) according to the Oregon.gov website.
In other words, in public health terms, it's the same counsel as ever: Get vaccinated, get a booster, mask up indoors in public places.