The omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 was identified in California on Wednesday, Dec. 1. While these cases mark the first appearance of this mutation in the U.S., they will not be the last— experts predict that the variant’s spread in North America is only beginning.
“I would say it’s probably a small chance that it’s [already] here in the Kansas City area,” Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Kansas Health System, told The Star. “But if it’s not, I would suspect that within the next week or two that yes, we will probably... have evidence of it in the Kansas City area.”
That’s not necessarily a cause for alarm—but there are a number of ways Kansas Citians can reduce the risk of infection. Here’s what we know about the omicron variant, and what you can do to combat it.
Stopping the spread is crucial
Much of the guidance from earlier in the pandemic will still help you keep yourself and your family safe from catching the newest strain. Dr. Hawkinson said that practicing common-sense behaviors like social distancing and hand-washing are a key part of preventing illness.
“We know the things that protect us against coronavirus,” he said. “That is distancing, masking, good hand hygiene, meeting outdoors if you can [and] not gathering in indoor spaces, especially with people who may be outside of your bubble.”
If you do plan to gather in groups for the holidays, you may want to get a COVID-19 test before greeting your guests.
Testing is available for free at clinics around Kansas City.
Vaccines work, even against variants
The new mutations present in the omicron variant mean that more research is needed before scientists can determine how effective current vaccines are against it. However, Hawkinson noted that vaccinated people have immune systems that are better prepared to fight unfamiliar strains of the virus than unvaccinated people. This “continued evolution” of the immune system spurred by the vaccine gives vaccinated people an advantage against new variants.
“They do get very good continued evolution of their immune response to help fight off variants that they haven’t seen before... variants that we don’t even know about,” Hawkinson said. That’s part of why getting vaccinated and getting a booster shot are so important in the fight against the omicron variant, he said.
“I am optimistic that we will still have garnered some protection from the vaccines that we have currently,” Hawkinson added.
Vaccines and booster shots are available for free at clinics around Kansas City.
Omicron’s exact characteristics are still unknown
Early reports suggested that the omicron variant may be more transmissible than earlier mutations, but could cause more mild symptoms. Both of these conclusions were drawn from early data, so the exact impacts of omicron remain to be seen.
“I think it’s really too premature to say exactly what the clinical scenario is,” said Hawkinson. “Remember, we’re also dealing with vaccinated people right now, [while] in the past we really hadn’t been.”
While the omicron variant’s mutations make it difficult to predict, they also help researchers identify it with ease. Missouri researchers are monitoring the state’s wastewater for signs of the variant, and say it will “stick out like a sore thumb” when it appears.
Delta is still Kansas City hospitals’ main concern
Speculations about omicron are at the forefront of many Kansas Citians’ minds— but the delta variant is still far more prevalent. Keeping hospital beds available for omicron patients will involve stopping the spread of delta, as well.
“We are still in a significant delta surge in the United States in general, and in [the] KC metro area as well,” said Hawkinson. “Our goal in the health system is to keep everybody healthy, [and] to promote the public health initiatives and guidance as much as possible.”
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