In the midst of a surge of new COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant, a new variant is also causing alarm among health officials. On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified a COVID-19 variant named omicron as a variant of concern—the highest designation level that WHO gives.
The new variant was first reported to the WHO by South African health officials. It is feared to be more transmissible than the delta variant; however, U.S. officials are cautioning against panic.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” said President Joe Biden on Monday during his remarks to the nation about the new variant. He continued to stress the need to get fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, to be protected against all the known COVID variants and encouraged Americans to continue to wear a mask when indoors.
To date, there have been no reported cases of the omicron variant in the U.S. but experts note that until last week, they were not looking for this variant and it’s most likely already here. “We should assume it’s already here in the United States, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News’ chief health and medical correspondent.
Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “There have been no confirmed cases but obviously we’re on high alert. It’s inevitable that sooner or later, it’s going to spread widely.”
In a statement, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that it is continuously monitoring variants and touted the U.S. variant surveillance system as being able to detect new variants reliably and quickly.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky expanded the agency’s recommendation on booster doses in the face of the omicron variant. “Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after their initial J&J vaccine,” said Dr. Walensky in a statement issued Monday.
To date, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 777,000 Americans, according to real-time data compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s Center. Minnesota is one of several states that has recently been hit with a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Last week, Gov. Tim Walz secured federal staffing teams to relieve Minnesota hospitals strained under a dramatic influx of COVID-19 patients—the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated. The state has also expanded its access to testing and monoclonal antibodies treatments to help curb the surge of hospitalizations.
There are over 1,382 Minnesotans hospitalized for COVID-19, the highest figure this year. Only 47 ICU beds statewide were open to accepting patients as of last week.
Vaccines vs. omicron
U.S. health officials have said that more data is needed to determine the efficacy of the current COVID-19 vaccines against the omicron variant. It could take up to two weeks for conclusive data to come in according to officials.
Vaccine companies Pfizer and Moderna have said they are ready to re-formulate their vaccines to offer stronger efficacy against the new variant should the data show it is necessary. The re-formulations would take roughly 100 days, according to the companies.
The rapid global spread of new variants underscores the need for an equitable global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. “We need to do more than just vaccinate Americans,” said President Biden, “we need to vaccinate the world.”
To that end, President Biden noted that the U.S. has shipped out more vaccines—275 million vaccines shipped to 110 countries—than all other countries combined. He encouraged other nations to step up their vaccine distribution.
President Biden has temporarily banned travel from South Africa and other southern African countries where COVID-19 transmission cases are reported to be high. “While we have said that travel restrictions can slow the speed of omicron, it cannot prevent it,” said President Biden.
He continued, “Here’s what it does: it gives us time. It gives us time to take more action. To move quicker, to make sure people understand, you have to get the vaccine. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster.”
While experts await more definitive data on how well the current vaccines hold up against omicron, health officials stress that Americans should continue utilizing the known preventive measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Beyond vaccines and masking up indoors, the CDC is reminding Americans to wash their hands frequently and maintain physical distance from others.
Likening the multiple public safety measures to “winter layers,” Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious diseases physician, encouraged Americans to “layer up.” “When you’re out in public, wear a mask” stay in well-ventilated areas and use rapid tests, said Dr. Bhadelia on MSNBC’s “Hallie Jackson Reports.”
“We’re not back to square one,” said Bhadelia. “We still have a lot of potent tools to protect ourselves.”
Information provided by the CDC, WhiteHouse.gov, and the MN Department of Health.