The omicron COVID-19 variant that was first found in South Africa is the newest one of concern for the novel coronavirus, but it is not a reason to panic, said the public health officer for the North Olympic Peninsula.
As of Tuesday, no cases of the omicron variant had been sequenced in Washington, and, due to the higher level of sequencing the state does, officials believe they will know relatively quickly when cases of omicron do appear here, said Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.
“At this point, we don’t know enough about it, but we’re studying it and following it very closely,” Berry said. “We know that we’re seeing a rise in it in South Africa, where we’re watching that.
“It very well may be a more transmissible variant — early data indicates that — but we don’t know yet if it’s a more severe variant, and that really matters.”
As viruses randomly mutate, they commonly become more transmissible, but sometimes the viruses also become less severe, Berry said.
If omicron is proven to be less severe, “that would be a good outcome,” Berry said.
While omicron is concerning, prevention measures such as vaccinations, mask wearing, social distancing and limiting gatherings that work against the current delta variant also help to prevent transmission of omicron, Berry said.
“Right now our available protections we use for delta work for omicron,” Berry said. “There’s a tendency when we see a new variant to panic, but we have the tools to control this virus. We just have to use them.”
Viruses mutate more frequently in areas with high virus transmission, which largely correlates with the percentage of the population vaccinated. In South Africa, less than 30 percent of the residents are vaccinated, leading to high levels of transmission and more potential for mutations, Berry said.
“Mutations like this are expected so long as we have unequal distribution of vaccines throughout the world,” Berry said. “This really should serve as a reminder and a wake-up call to all of us that we need to act to improve distribution of vaccines globally.”
Berry said the SARS-CoV-2 virus —which causes COVID-19 — is not mutating to “get around” the vaccines. Viruses randomly mutate as they get transmitted to others, and that is why mutations are more common in areas with low vaccination rates, she said.
On the North Olympic Peninsula, officials continue to monitor two long-term care facility outbreaks, with one each in Clallam and Jefferson counties. Both have now had a full testing of no new cases, which is hopeful, Berry said.
The Jefferson County outbreak has had a total of 15 cases, while the Clallam County outbreak has had 42 cases, she said.
On Tuesday, Clallam County added 16 new cases of COVID-19. The county has confirmed a total of 5,273 cases since the start of the pandemic, county health data said.
Jefferson County added six new cases on Tuesday. The county has confirmed a total of 1,303 cases since the pandemic began, according to county public health data.
Clallam County had a case rate of 174 per 100,000 population for the past two weeks as of Tuesday, according to county public health data.
Jefferson County will update its case rate on Friday, due to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. Health officials recorded a case rate of 192.61 per 100,000 for the two weeks prior as of Nov. 17.
Neither county reported a death due to COVID-19 on Tuesday. Clallam County has had 72 residents die from COVID-19, while Jefferson County has had 19 residents die.
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.