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What Washington’s public health officials are saying about the Omicron variant

The first known cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the U.S. as many questions remain, including how well vaccines and natural immunity protect against infection, and whether it is more contagious. 

While there are many unknowns about the variant, Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington’s state epidemiologist, said it contains around 50 mutation on its surface that are not related to the Delta variant — the dominant strain in the state and across the country. 

This means it appears to be a variant of the virus not derived from Delta. Lindquist said during a media briefing yesterday that he’s not concerned that it will prove to be more deadly, as it doesn’t appear to be so at this point, but that it may be more infectious. 

The question now is how effective will the vaccines be, one which there’s no clear answer to. According to Financial Times, Moderna and BioNTech’s leadership hold opposing views on the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing infection, with Moderna’s stating the variant is likely to make vaccines less effective. BioNTech leaders have stated they expect vaccines to still offer a high level of protection against severe disease. 

Both could be true. More than 30 of the Omicron’s variants are on the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that bonds to human cells. While this could make it more infectious, vaccines could still offer protection against severe infections. 

Washington’s Secretary of Health Umair Shah said vaccines will remain an important part of the state’s COVID-19 strategy. 

“We recognize that vaccine effectiveness will be there for this new variant, we just don’t know to what degree,” Shah said during the media briefing. “In other words, vaccines will not be ineffective, they will be effective and it’s up to us to be vaccinated.” 

Initial reports from South Africa, where the variant was first identified, state that the variant tends to cause mild symptoms. However, the World Health Organization is playing it cautious, stating there’s not enough data yet to determine its transmissibility or health risks. It notes that while more mild symptoms were reported in South Africa, many of those cases were among relatively young university students who are less likely to develop severe symptoms. 

Omicron cases have already been detected in the U.S. Today, the Biden administration unveiled new COVID plans in light of the variant reaching the country. It includes focusing on providing booster vaccine shots to all adults, requiring insurance companies to reimburse people for at-home tests, and supplying treatment drugs for those that fall ill. 

Lindquist said that given Washington was the first state to identify the original strain of COVID in early 2020, it’s likely that the state will also quickly identify Omicron when it arrives. 

“We are anticipating that we will see it,” Lindquist said. 

Washington is one of the top states for conducting a type of test known as S-dropout, which identifies a specific gene and can identify Omicron infections. The state samples 10% of tests for S-dropout results. 

Shah said the main message is still to remain vigilant, as the state is still experiencing a Delta surge. 

“This is not a time to be panicking or overly-concerned,” Shah said. “But this is a time to be concerned about this new variant.” 

It’s unclear how this will impact COVID projections, but the IHME — which has consistently produced some of the most accurate modeling — is working on incorporating the variant into new projections. For more information on vaccines and the holidays, check out a recent interview with Dr. Ali Mokdad, with the IHME, on our sister site State of Reform.

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