Public health officials monitor Omicron and are prepared to respond

There is still much to learn about the Omicron variant of COVID-19. We do know that viruses mutate or change constantly. To help you better understand how Oregon is monitoring this new variant and for a broad look at where we are now, we turned to Dr. Thomas Jeanne, deputy state health officer and deputy state epidemiologist, and Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations at Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

The following is a summary of their recent comments.

Omicron cases have now been detected in the United States. How is OHA monitoring Omicron?

We are currently closely monitoring the Omicron developments. From what we currently know, which is limited, Omicron is highly transmissible, which means it will likely spread quickly. It’s possible that it will not cause illness as severe as Delta causes, but we will have to see. Through testing and sequencing, a process in which the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory and other laboratories map the entire DNA makeup of a virus, we can find this new variant. SARS-CoV-2 can also be identified in the feces of infected people, and OHA works with Oregon State University (OSU) to test wastewater from around the state. This functions as an early detection system to determine what variants are circulating. Wastewater surveillance initially helped find Delta throughout Oregon.

Will the current COVID-19 tests detect Omicron?

Some PCR tests give a result that can suggest the Omicron variant may have caused an infection, although definitive results are only possible with subsequent genetic sequencing of the virus. We believe it is only a matter of time before a case of the Omicron variant is detected in Oregon. Once the variant is detected, OHA will inform the public. Not every laboratory that tests for COVID-19 will pick it up, but some are already capable of detecting this variant. For this reason, a sample of tests collected throughout the state is sent to the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory and to some university labs for a representative sample.

Does this new COVID-19 variant mean we are going back to square one?

We are in a much better place than we were a year ago. In Oregon, more than 80 percent of people 18 and older have had at least one dose in the vaccination series against COVID-19, and more than 63 percent of all residents are fully protected. Even if the vaccine isn’t completely protective against every new variant, there’s likely to be significant partial protection.

When can we look forward to a period of more normalcy?

When new variants surface but don’t cause significant pressure on our health care capacity or cause severe illness and death, then we will be in a more normalized situation.

We are in a wait-and-see mode right now, and that is frustrating for everyone. During the holiday season, family and friends are gathering and traveling, and we need to watch to see whether there is an increase in severe illness as a result, and be prepared to respond.

The people of Oregon have demonstrated that they know how to protect themselves during these challenging times. And by taking the necessary precautions they are at much lower risk of getting a severe infection, being hospitalized or passing the virus on to other people, especially their loved ones.

Are public health recommendations expected to change because of Omicron?

Once there is a clearer picture of the severity of Omicron and the effectiveness of vaccines against it, we will be in a better position to consider revising public health recommendations. But it likely won’t substantially change what we’ve been doing throughout the state.

The best recommendations continue to be: get vaccinated, get boosted (especially before we head into the winter months), wear a mask indoors and physically distance when possible. We are all tired of masks and distancing, but they do reduce the spread of viruses.

It bears repeating: Oregonians know what to do and have been doing it, and because of that we are in a much better place.

More information on Omicron can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.