NORTHERN UTAH (ABC4) – As global health leaders study the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, local health experts are preparing for its eventual arrival in the Beehive State.   

“I think we are concerned,” said Sankar Swaminathan, M.D. Dr. Swaminathan is the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. While speaking with reporters Monday, he explained that while not much is known about the Omicron variant, it is being taken seriously in Utah.   

“It has an extremely large number of mutations or changes in the gene that encodes the spike protein,” stated Dr. Swaminathan. He said this is important to understand because that protein is what allows the virus to infect people and it’s also what the vaccine targets.    

“We anticipate that the vaccine will still work, we just don’t know at what percent,” Rich Lakin told ABC4. Lakin is the immunization director for the Utah Department of Health. He explained that although experts don’t know how effective the vaccine will be against the new variant quite yet, the vaccine is still the best tool in fighting the spread of COVID-19. 

Lakin added: “Let’s say the vaccine only has a 50 percent protection against this new one, as a scenario, that’s still one out of every two people where the variant hits somebody and dies because it can’t reproduce and it can’t spread.”  

Currently, less than 1.8 million Utahns are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, that means a large proportion of the population is not, and transmission rates remain high statewide.  This is concerning for health experts. “Every place where there’s increased transmission, there’s increased variant generation, and the increased chance of a new strain or variant that could be more dangerous,” explained Dr. Swaminathan.   

In response to the new variant, MountainStar healthcare released a statement to ABC4: 

Like the rest of the medical community, we continue to learn about new COVID-19 variants and the unique challenges each one presents in our ongoing effort to protect the communities served by MountainStar Healthcare. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as we deliver the best evidence-based care and counsel to our patients. For anyone concerned about how to protect themselves from the Omicron variant, we recommend speaking with your healthcare provider about vaccines, masking and other measures that can reduce the spread of this and other variants.”  

During a Zoom call with media, officials with University of Utah Health explained that hospitals across the state continue to work with at nearly 95 percent capacity. If the Omicron variant makes it to Utah while with transmission rates and hospitalization rates remain high, healthcare officials worry about the quality of care they will be able to provide. Dr. Swaminathan added: “If there’s a surge that puts us over the top, we’re going to be in a non-functional or a dysfunctional situation, with people who should be in an ICU, or in the emergency room, in the hallway on a gurney.”   

Dr. Swaminathan said more information about the vaccines’ effectiveness against the new variant should be available in about a week. He stated: “You know, I used to live in Florida and if there’s a hurricane out in the gulf, you are concerned and you make sure that you have shutters, but you don’t panic and get in your car and drive out of there or do anything that’s going to be counterproductive. You just have to be concerned and be prepared as best as you can be.”