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Local public health officials prepare for omicron variant but await more information

Colorado sees first confirmed case Thursday
Health care workers prepare a COVID-19 test sample before a person self-administered a test at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at Miami-Dade County Auditorium in Miami. The World Health Organization designated omicron as a variant of concern only two days after it was first identified in South Africa. The first case in the U.S. was reported Wednesday in California. (Associated Press file)

San Juan Basin Public Health and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have begun monitoring for the new coronavirus variant in La Plata County and across the state, but the agencies remain focused on vaccinations and other protective measures.

CDPHE said in a news release Monday that the state is monitoring for the omicron variant.

The agency announced on Thursday that a woman from Arapahoe County was the first confirmed case of the new variant in Colorado.

The woman had recently visited Southern Africa for tourism and was fully vaccinated but had yet to receive a booster shot, CDPHE said in a news release

Public officials with SJBPH have also been watching these developments closely after the World Health Organization’s designation of omicron as a variant of concern last week.

Jollon

“We’re working really closely with the state on next steps around this,” said SJBPH Executive Director Liane Jollon.

CDPHE follows variants of the coronavirus using genetic sequencing and wastewater monitoring.

The state lab takes COVID-19 tests from across Colorado and analyzes the genomes of the virus to understand which strains of the disease are spreading.

Colorado ranks among the highest in the nation in genetic sequencing, according to CDPHE.

The agency also partners with utilities to monitor virus particles in wastewater.

The state lab tests wastewater samples looking for the genetic markers that show the variants circulating in communities.

“We really at this point have a lot to learn about the omicron variant,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado state epidemiologist, in a news conference Tuesday. “But due to some of the mutations that are present specifically in the spike protein of the virus, it is possible to make some predictions.”

Herlihy said the new variant could be more transmissible and potentially evade immune responses.

The omicron variant has at least 30 mutations on the spike protein that allows the virus to enter and infect cells, but it is too early to tell exactly how those mutations will affect the disease.

SJBPH officials are waiting for three key pieces of information to better understand the variant and its potential effects, Jollon said.

Scientists have yet to determine transmissibility, the severity of illness or how the virus evades immunity.

All three will inform officials as they work to determine the seriousness of the omicron variant and any public health measures agencies may need to initiate.

The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa on Nov. 24. Quick surveillance and genetic sequencing led WHO to designate omicron as a variant of concern only two days later.

Since then, it has spread to more than 20 countries with Canada reporting its first case on Sunday.

“We expect omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the U.S.,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website said on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday morning that California had detected the country’s first omicron variant case.

The news “confirms what we had suspected: that it would reach the U.S. or was already here,” Jollon said. “It still remains to be seen how (omicron) will compete with the delta variant, which is the dominant strain in the U.S.”

President Joe Biden restricted travel from eight African countries on Monday in an effort to buy time and limit the spread of the new variant to the U.S.

But experts have said those actions would not stop transmission.

CDPHE and SJBPH continue to double down on protective measures already in place, such as recommending vaccinations and masking.

“The strategies that we used for alpha are the same strategies that we’re using now for delta and the same strategies that we will use for omicron when it arrives in Colorado and the U.S.,” Herlihy said.

“The emergence of omicron as a variant of concern really drives home the importance of the community doing what we can do to stay safe and healthy,” said Chandler Griffin, spokesman for SJBPH.

Griffin and Jollon highlighted the importance of continued testing, in addition to vaccination and masking, because genomic sequencing efforts rely on COVID-19 tests.

“Widespread community testing is ultimately how we will identify the variant if and when it does arrive,” Griffin said.

Though news about the new variant has been overwhelming in recent days, residents in La Plata and Archuleta counties should not panic.

“There’s a lot of information swirling,” Griffin said. “We just want people to focus on the precautions and what we can do.”

Vaccines and testing are widely available in La Plata and Archuleta counties. More information is available at sjbpublichealth.org/coronavirus.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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