Medical expert says 'we can do a lot' to reduce omicron's impact

Microscopic view coronavirus omicron variant or B.1.1.529. 3D rendering.
Microscopic view coronavirus omicron variant or B.1.1.529. 3D rendering. Photo credit GettyImages

The first case of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron has been detected in the U.S. with a patient confirmed to have it in San Francisco, California.

To discuss Omicron and what it means for the pandemic in the U.S., Dr. Michael Osterholm joined News Talk 830 WCCO's Chad Hartman.

The patient who has tested positive for the variant is believed to have been vaccinated against COVID-19, had recently returned from South Africa, and is currently experiencing mild symptoms.

However, Osterholm says that the confirmation of Omicron being in the U.S. should not be a surprise.

"I said last weekend and into last week that it was just a matter of days before we would see cases confirmed here, and as for that matter that we would probably see the number of countries with cases well over 50 by next week, and we are surely on track for that. I think we are up to 24 countries right now," Osterholm said.

When it comes to what we know about the variant, Osterholm, like many other epidemiologists and virologists, said that there isn't a lot known for certain.

"We know that, in fact, it is being transmitted readily at this point in parts of South Africa, which is the one place where it's been long enough so you might see sustained transmission," Osterholm said. "It appears to be transmitting much more widely than Delta, which had become kind of the king of the virus hill."

The doctor said that Delta became the dominant strain of the virus because of how easily it was transmitted. Now, with Omicron having the potential to be more transmissible, there is a cause for concern.

"That's a problem because Delta is causing us enough problems in this country," Osterholm said.

Another topic that has been discussed is the variant's ability to infect the vaccinated. Osterholm said several mutations in the virus are associated with "immune escape," which can reduce the effectiveness of someone's immunity.

With many questioning whether or not current COVID-19 vaccines will offer protection from Omicron, Osterholm says there is still much to be confirmed.

"We're still looking very carefully at, 'do we have any evidence yet that the Omicron variant is, in fact, one that is going to see this immune escape happen with?'" Osterholm said.

One thing that Osterholm did stress was that vaccines will still offer a form of protection against severe illness and hospitalizations.

"It's not like there is nothing we can do. We can do a lot to reduce both the impact of Delta and Omicron if that becomes the next dominant variant," Osterholm said while pleading with the public to get vaccinated or boosted.

With information set to come out about the variant in the next two weeks, Osterholm said there are several things people are looking for including, the severity of illness caused by Omicron, how it evades immunity, and if it will be more infectious.

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