A surgical mask and an N95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Omicron, the new variant of COVID-19, has been spreading rapidly in the past few days, with the World Health Organization declaring it a variant of concern.
While there haven’t been any Omicron cases found in the U.S. or in Louisiana yet, Ochsner Health — Louisiana’s largest health care system — asked residents to start preparing for the variant during a Tuesday press briefing.
“It is close by and we know it’s a matter of time,” said Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, medical director of infection control and prevention at Ochsner, though she is optimistic that COVID-19 safety precautions such as social distancing and vaccination will help dampen the spread.
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“We do know fortunately that we do have vaccine manufacturers that can get vaccines ready pretty quickly if there is a concern and if there is a variation in the vaccine that needs to be made for this variant,” Baumgarten said.
Omicron is thought to be highly transmissible, but there is no data on how severe the sickness that it causes is yet. One concern is the number of mutations seen in the Omicron variant. While the Delta strain had nine mutations in the spike protein, Omicron has 32 mutations.
Ochsner officials encourage vaccination and booster shots for Louisianians, as early studies have shown the Pfizer vaccine offers at least some efficacy against the variant.
Louisiana’s mask mandate was lifted about a month ago, after the worst of the fourth surge of COVID-19 in the state subsided. While Louisiana COVID-19 cases remain low, only about 48% of the state is fully vaccinated, leading to concerns about the spread of the new variant.
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One positive aspect to this is that the state is already prepared to do COVID-19 sequencing and monitoring, which is needed to detect the new variant, said Dr. Amy Feehan, an Ochsner clinical research scientist.
“We’ve worked out all the kinks through the Delta surge. We’re going to be able to tell pretty quickly when Omicron does arrive and know what it does in our population,” Feehan said.
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