SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The COVID-19 omicron variant was detected in November in South Africa.
At the end of the month, the World Health Organization declared it a variant of concern. Less than a week later, on December 1, the United States confirmed the first positive case of the variant in California. The Utah Public Health Laboratory is already using genetic sequencing on positive COVID-19 PCR tests to detect the variant when it reaches the Beehive State.
This is something they’ve been doing since the beginning of the pandemic but now, they’re looking for the omicron variant as well.
“We can beat the virus,” Dr. Kelly Oakeson told ABC4. “We can overcome it, but if it’s just spreading unchecked, the more chance for it to just evade our immune system, or invade our vaccinations, and that’s scary to me.” Dr. Oakeson is the chief scientist at Next-Generation Sequencing & Bioinformatics at the state lab.
Dr. Oakeson explained that the lab sequences up to 4,500 positive cases each week. “I would like to do more, but it’s enough for us to have a really robust surveillance system in place,” he stated. “And we should be able to detect rare events as soon as they happen, so we should be able to detect one or two omicrons pretty simultaneously to when they actually arrive in Utah.”
He said that currently, about 99 percent of all cases are the delta variant in Utah. The delta variant is responsible for the increase in breakthrough cases the state is seeing as well as the high transmission rates. Sankar Swaminathan, M.D. Chief of Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health said, “and if that (omicron) starts to displace delta, that would be very concerning.”
Dr. Swaminathan explained that it would be concerning because there is still not enough evidence to know “whether the disease this variant causes is going to be more severe, about the same, or even less severe than currently circulating.”
Dr. Oakeson told ABC4 preliminary data out of South Africa shows a higher reinfection rate with the omicron variant. “So, if that’s the case, then yeah, it’s really scary,” he said.
It’s scary, Dr. Oakeson added because it would overwhelm Utah’s hospitals. Hospitals across the state are running at or near capacity. A surge of new cases (or breakthrough cases) caused by a variant health officials still know little about could push hospitals well past capacity.
Dr. Oakeson urges Utahns to take this new variant seriously after two years of uncontrolled spread.
“The more we can reduce or slow the spread, the less likely it will become that there will be another omicron, or another delta, or another Greek letter, right? We don’t want to get to, you know, yeah. The end of the Greek alphabet. Right? We don’t want to get there.”