A new COVID variant detected in South Africa is causing concern among Oregon Health officials. South African scientists announced a new variant, now called the Omicron variant, was spreading in their country last week and it’s already been detected in 20 other countries.
Scientists are working to understand the novel variant, but it’s currently unknown whether it is more transmissible than other COVID variants or causes more severe health outcomes. The World Health Organization reported that hospitalizations increased in South Africa but said that could be due to more overall infections rather than increased severity of cases.
The variant already spread to Europe and Asia. There hasn’t been a case yet in the United States as of this writing, but health officials expect that it’s only a matter of time before it spreads in North America.
“Omicron has not yet been detected in the United States, but we expect it will be in the coming days due to its reported high transmissibility,” said Dean E. Sidelinger, health officer and Oregon state epidemiologist, in a press release. “Oregon has one of the most robust variant surveillance systems in the United States, and so far, no cases of Omicron have been detected in Oregon.”
“Omicron is reported to be more transmissible than the Delta variant as it’s quickly outcompeted Delta in South Africa, but we do not yet know how much more transmissible it is. We also don’t know how Omicron affects vaccine effectiveness against severe infection (hospitalization and death),” Sidelinger said.
Health officials say vaccination, masking and distancing are the best ways to prevent the virus from spreading. A CDC study found that unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from COVID.
“Vaccination remains the best protection against COVID-19. Those who are not yet vaccinated should get their first COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. Those due for a booster – all adults either two months after a Johnson & Johnson vaccination or six months after a Moderna or Pfizer vaccination – should get it as soon as possible,” Sidelinger said. “Wearing a mask when inside public places as well as social distancing and handwashing remain incredibly important in the face of an emerging variant and high levels of community transmission.”
“Omicron is reported to be more transmissible than the Delta variant as it’s quickly outcompeted Delta in South Africa, but we do not yet know how much more transmissible it is.” — Dean Sidelinger
Starting Nov. 30 Deschutes County Health Services along with the Oregon Health Authority are offering drive-thru vaccinations at the Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center in Redmond for anyone 5 and older. The vaccination clinic will run from noon to 7 every day and can offer first, second or booster shots for all three COVID vaccines approved in the U.S.
“We are excited to help improve access to pediatric COVID-19 vaccinations,” said Nahad Sadr-Azodi, Director of Deschutes County Health Services in a press release. “This is a great opportunity for families to come and get vaccinated together.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that the Omicron variant originated in South Africa, however that is just where it was detected. We regret the error.