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Utah health officials urge vaccination as they prepare to deal with omicron variant

·4 min read

Little more than a week after its discovery, the omicron variant of COVID-19 has already made its way to southwestern Utah.

On Friday, a Southwest Utah resident who recently traveled to South Africa tested positive for Omicron, a Utah Department of Health press release said. The variant was detected through ongoing genetic sequencing at the Utah Health Laboratory.

The first case of Omicron in the U.S. was detected in California earlier this week and is expected to spread quickly, just as previous variants have. Though researchers are still trying to learn more about Omicron, it clearly has some attributes that make it different than past variants, health officials said.

Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, said Friday that the Delta variant is still the primary concern for Utah, but there is the worry that Omicron could present an entirely new set of problems.

“We don’t have all the answers on Omicron and anything that we say is based on very early and tentative data and people just need to be patient until we have better science," Pavia said. "We know that it is spread pretty widely around the world, we know that it's here in the U.S. and we know that several of the cases were infected in the U.S. so transmission is ongoing."

One potentially significant difference with Omicron is that early research suggests the monoclonal antibody treatment that has been effective against other variants may be less so against Omicron.

“We are going to lose some of those tools if Omicron becomes really widespread,” Pavia said.

There is little information about whether Omicron could bypass some of the protections offered by vaccines. However, in South Africa, there have been reports that Omicron’s mutation has made reinfection more likely among those who have already had covid.

Pavia said he predicts that those who have been vaccinated will still have protection against hospitalization or death but are less effective at preventing breakthroughs of milder infections.

“The other thing I think we can say at this point is that we know that getting two doses of vaccine and a booster or having been infected and getting two doses of vaccine gives you much higher antibody levels that are much broader,” Pavia said. “Broader antibodies are more likely to work against a variant such as Omicron.”

Utah kids getting vaccinated

Scientists worldwide are scrambling to assess the omicron variant's multiple mutations. (Nov. 29)
Scientists worldwide are scrambling to assess the omicron variant's multiple mutations. (Nov. 29)

Though there has been no science about child infections with Omicron, Pavia was happy to report that in Utah 70,000 children had been vaccinated.

“We have not seen any serious side effects or heard of any nationally," he said. "Remember that safety surveillance is ongoing in real-time so things will change over time but with well over 1 million doses given to kids in this age group so far and 70,000 in Utah so far it's looking really good."

For those who have chosen the “wait and see” approach waiting on a larger number of child vaccinations, Pavia says that 1 million is a number to feel good about.

With Christmas coming in just a few weeks, those wanting full protection should get the second shot for their children soon, he said.

“We can give all other vaccines on the same day that we give a covid vaccine,” Pavia said in regard to the influenza vaccine. Many adults and children alike have received both on the same day in Utah.

Holiday Traveling this year

Many are planning on visiting family and traveling for the holiday season and with Omicron now a concern, there are a few things to keep in mind.

“If you use other sensible precautions and you’ve had the vaccine and boosting you can n to venture out pretty safely. By reasonable precautions, you should still be wearing a mask in an indoor setting where you are going to be around unvaccinated people or crowds," Pavia said. "When you're around relatives who have been vaccinated and boosted, I would personally take the mask off as long as they have been careful as well."

Elle Cabrera covers breaking news and topics. Please help us to continue producing this content at thespectrum.com/subscribe.

This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Utah health officials prepare to deal with omicron variant