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Omicron COVID variant set to hit Utah in days – if it’s not already here

If the latest variant of COVID-19 known as omicron isn’t already circulating in Utah, it’s only a matter of days before it arrives, a disease doctor warned on Friday. pediatric infectious diseases from the University of Utah Health.

And no one knows for sure just how bad the new variant is going to be, said Dr Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah Health and director of epidemiology at the University of Utah Health. Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. .

This includes children in Utah, who account for about 1 in 5 cases of COVID-19 in the state, who remain high due to the highly contagious delta variant here since the spring, and could rise even more due to the gatherings. holiday during Thanksgiving.

“Children are at quite a significant risk of contracting COVID disease in general, and we cannot pretend that children are completely safe,” Pavia said. “But whether omicron will be the same as delta, softer or worse, it will take a little while for us to figure it out. “

This does not mean that the Utahns should refrain from getting vaccinated or having their children aged 5 and over vaccinated against the deadly virus, the doctor said, calling it “a real problem” that the 1,4 million Utahns eligible to be vaccinated did not get the shots.

“I think delta alone should have been reason enough to get the vaccine. But maybe omicron concerns should really grab people’s attention, ”Pavia said, citing new data suggesting the new variant is“ very good ”at re-infecting those who have had COVID-19.

The Utahns shouldn’t rely on immunity from a previous fight with the virus, he said. Vaccinating both completely – two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one from Johnson & Johnson – plus a booster provides stronger protection, Pavia said.

He said vaccines provide almost 100% protection for adolescents, according to recent studies. The injections were only recently approved for children aged 5 to 11, but the vaccines have been shown to be over 90% effective in clinical trials.

More information is needed, Pavie said, before the age limit for booster shots, now 18, can be lowered. He said it’s possible the vaccines could be reformulated due to the omicron variant, but determining their effectiveness would take months.

Where is omicron already in the United States?

By the time of Pavia’s mid-morning virtual press conference, 10 cases of the omicron variant had been detected in the United States, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Hawaii and New York, which have reported five cases.

The new variant, first seen a week ago in South Africa, triggered worldwide travel restrictions and other actions, including a new plan to deal with COVID-19 announced Thursday by President Joe Biden calling for more vaccinations and testing.

What is known about the omicron variant is that it spreads quickly.

“We don’t have all the answers on omicron. Everything we are saying is based on very old and provisional data. People just need to be patient until we have better science, ”Pavia said. “But we do know that it has spread quite widely around the world.”

Public health officials across the country, including Utah, are sequencing COVID-19 test results for the omicron variant. Pavia said he expects to find out in the next few days that there are many more omicron variants in the United States, including Utah.

“I think it’s very likely that if he hasn’t reached Utah it’s just a matter of days,” the doctor said, noting Utah has a better system. than many states to identify variants. “I think it’s in Utah. If not, it will be soon.

Utah has “the tools to fight omicron”

Even as Utah prepares for the omicron variant, Pavia said the risk of new variants emerging is “very high. This virus mutates and it has been shown to be really flexible. It’s changing. It evolves to become a better pathogen, to better infect us and spread. “

Still, he said there was reason to be optimistic.

“We have the tools to fight omicron. This is not the end of the world. But we don’t use them, ”Pavia said, urging Utahns to get vaccinated, including a booster if they are eligible, and to take precautions against the spread of the virus, such as wearing a mask in public. .

“You might be fed up with masks, but they’ve been with us for a while and they really, really make a difference. So go ahead and protect yourself, ”he said. The doctor said he was concerned Utah, recently one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots, could peak after Thanksgiving.

This may already be happening, with the Utah Department of Health reporting 1,873 new cases of COVID-19 and 19 more deaths from the virus since Thursday, bringing the seven-day moving average to 1,407 more cases per day.

“We are not done with the delta surge,” Pavia said, adding: “Everyone is focusing on omicron and the press is naturally very interested in it. But we are still hammered by delta and we have to get it under control. . “

Han Kim, professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said the president’s new plan, which includes hundreds of new family vaccination clinics nationwide and insurance reimbursement for tests at home, would help but could have arrived sooner.

“I think everything he does should have been done months ago with delta. We still don’t know what Omicron will do, but these programs will be effective in dealing with the delta surge right now, ”Kim said.

Making home testing for COVID-19 more accessible is particularly important, the professor said.

“If everyone had easy and inexpensive access to home testing, it would go a long way in dealing with the surges without bringing the economy to a complete stop. “

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion