Omicron variant: Douglas County health director, UNMC doctor shares what we know so far

WOWT 6 News Live at 10
Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 5:30 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - It’s just a matter of time before the new variant of COVID-19, Omicron, makes it to American soil. But right now, there’s not much known about the new strain.

Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse tells 6 News now is not the time to panic, but rather to remain vigilant.

Omicron is currently classified as a “variant of concern,” which is what the Delta variant was also classified under. But she says doctors and researchers are still learning more.

“I just want to be clear that there are many, many things that we just don’t know yet about Omicron, so we don’t know right now if it causes more severe illness than previous variants, we really don’t know right now about vaccination or natural immunity in terms of preventing or slowing it down,” she says.

“We’re going to have to stay really attuned to this and find out if it truly is more transmissible,” said Dr. Mark Rupp, Nebraska Medicine.

So what do we know? Dr. Huse talked with 6 News on Monday about what is known so far about the omicron variant.

“It does seem to show some signs of being more transmissible than previous variants, so easier to pass from person to person,” she says. “It was first sequenced in South Africa, but that doesn’t mean that’s where it originated, really it could have originated anywhere, it’s really a testament to South Africa’s ability to quickly sequence their tests.”

But just like with the delta variant, she says it won’t take too long to know more.

“We have a very dangerous variant in our backyard right now, which is the Delta variant, that we know is much more transmissible than previous variants of the virus,” he says.

“I would think over the next week we’re going to learn a lot more information about the omicron variant, you know there are a lot of researchers that are currently doing lab testing on the virus to see what they can find out there from its genetic sequencing to how it responds to vaccines, all those sorts of things.”

There are some things that may take a while longer, though.

“In terms of how transmissible it is, how sick people get, all those things take a little bit of time to gather that data because it’s more epidemiological, like out in the population so it takes time to gather that information,” Huse says.

Huse says some Nebraska testing labs will be checking positive COVID tests for the strain, but not every single test will be checked. The state will likely prioritize positive tests coming from clusters of outbreaks or hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

“We do have labs that are looking for certain markers that will tip us off that it could be Omicron, my understanding is that most labs can do that if they’re were doing sequencing, we don’t sequence every test though, we just don’t have that capacity really.”

Huse says the moral of the story remains the same: masks, good hygiene, and vaccines.

“I think it’s smart to just stay vigilant, I don’t think that anybody needs to panic at this time, I think that just being aware this is happening and continuing to follow those practices that have worked well for all those other variants, that remains very important.”

“I think fully vaccinated people, particularly those who have been boosted, can to a large degree if they are otherwise healthy, travel and gather with their family gathering,” Rupp says.

So how do we stop new variants from popping up?

“Viruses do what viruses do and that’s mutate to stay alive, so what we need to do is take away that pool for them to do that,” she says. “They need a host in which they can do that so the more people are vaccinated, the smaller that pool gets and there’s less opportunity for those mutations to happen.”

“Let’s pay attention to what’s going on right now in our community while keeping an eye on Omicron, but let’s pay attention to what’s going on right now.”

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