Microbiologist Samuel Philips sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29. The new omicron variant of COVID-19 will likely become the dominant strain in Utah by the new year, a doctor said Friday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY — The new omicron variant of COVID-19 will likely become the dominant strain in Utah by the new year, a doctor said Friday.
“We’re seeing across the country significant increases in case transmission that are now being driven by the omicron variant,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, describing increases in eastern states as “meteoric.”
The variant has been found to be at least two and up to three times more transmissible than the delta variant, Webb said during a news conference.
Now, Webb said identification of cases in Utah potentially shows between 3% and 6% of cases in the state are now omicron. In northeastern states, cases of omicron are as high as 20% of total cases.
Over the past few weeks, community transmission of COVID-19 largely driven by the delta variant has remained “steady,” with the rolling, seven-day average around 1,000 cases each day.
But hospitalization rates remain “very high,” Webb said, and intensive care units at many hospitals are at or near their capacity.
“We’re seeing a lot of admissions for other seasonal respiratory infections, we’re starting to see influenza in the community,” according to the doctor.
More transmissible variant on its way
Webb said he believes the omicron variant will burden the hospital systems further because of its transmission rate.
Most countries in Europe are experiencing significant spikes in omicron and seeing fewer cases due to the delta variant, Webb said. In the U.S., the percentage of omicron cases is doubling every two to three days, and it is expected to become the dominant variant throughout the U.S. and in Utah by the beginning of 2022, according to the doctor.
And the variant is a different beast, he said.
Omicron has more than 50 mutations that give it an advantage over other variants and cause it to “more efficiently” cause infection, according to Webb. Those who get it tend to have higher levels of the virus in their systems, he said, making spread to others more likely.
Data early on from South Africa offered some hope that the variant could cause less severe disease, Webb noted, but much more data is now available throughout the world, particularly in the U.K. as the variant has spread.
The hospitalization rates in South Africa and U.K. have now shot up, Webb said, indicating that the variant may not be less severe than the delta variant.
While the variant could create issues in Utah, Webb emphasized that Utah — both residents and health care systems — has two weeks to prepare during the holidays.
“We really, really need to recognize as a community that the symptoms of COVID-19 overlap dramatically with symptoms of over respiratory viruses,” Webb said, urging people to test for the virus frequently and early.
“We urge policymakers to continue to advance the availability of testing as much as possible. Testing frequently allows the community at large to identify when somebody is infected before spreading it to others,” Webb said.
Protecting yourself, others
For holiday gatherings, home testing kits are a good idea to identify symptomatic patients, he added.
It’s also important for residents to understand their personal risk when deciding which precautions to take. Those who are not fully vaccinated have a higher likelihood of a severe COVID-19. Adults ages 30 and above who have medical conditions like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or other conditions that impair the immune system are most at risk, Webb said.
Data shows omicron has a 10-times-higher reinfection rate than delta, he said.
“That’s discouraging because the increased contagiousness of this particular virus is sure to increase cases, and with increased cases we see increased hospitalizations,” especially in vulnerable groups.
But three exposures to COVID-19 — through vaccination or previous infection — provide the best protection. That means those who had the original vaccine dose or doses should get a booster shot if they haven’t done so, Webb said.
If you’ve had COVID-19, you need to have received two doses of vaccine to receive the strongest immunity.
If you’ve been fully vaccinated and experience a breakthrough infection, the breakthrough infection is a third experience with the virus that “significantly enhances” the immune system’s ability to protect against another infection, Webb said.
He said it’s best not to get exposed to COVID-19, but to instead access vaccines and boosters.