Local health officials sought to reassure the public that the omicron variant of Covid-19 is a concern but there is no need to panic. The solution is to continue mitigation strategies and gather more data.
At a media briefing Monday, Hartford HealthCare officials told reporters the omicron variant was a concern because of mutations in the virus’s spiked protein, but said they feel existing vaccines and boosters would provide some protection. Exactly how much protection can’t be determined yet, and more information would be shared as it becomes available, officials said. Hartford HealthCare is the parent company of MidState Medical Center in Meriden and The Hospital of Central Connecticut.
“Even if not 100 percent, it should provide some protection,” said Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford Healthcare’s chief epidemiologist. “There could be some mutations that could allow it to evade the immune system and testing, but I don’t believe that is the case right now.”
The omicron variant was discovered recently by health officials in South Africa using similar lab and clinical testing methods used in the U.S. After reviewing its data, South African officials were able to conclude in a relatively short period of time that something different was happening, health officials said.
The South African testing results and transparency with the global health community boosted confidence among local health officials that existing serontology testing would detect the presence of the variant. It also provided enough of an early warning to gather more data to adopt new strategies if needed.
Omicron has been detected in about 100 cases in Israel, the U.K., Europe and Australia. Canada announced Sunday the discovery of the first two detected cases in North America.
“So far, the cases have been mild among those vaccinated, there have been no deaths but there’s not that many cases,” Wu said. “Any vaccination is going to help to some extent and offer some modicum of protection.”
On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor for the Biden administration, said there is a “strong indication” the omicron variant is going to have an “advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection.”
“It’s not necessarily that that’s going to happen, but it’s a strong indication that we really need to be prepared for that,” Fauci told NBC news.
Hartford HealthCare currently has 137 patients hospitalized for Covid-19 statewide, up from 78 patients 20 days ago, according to Dr. Ajay Kumar, executive vice president and chief clinical officer for Hartford HealthCare. MidState Medical Center currently has 12 Covid-19 patients, and The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain has 20. The majority of patients are unvaccinated. Most of the vaccinated patients displaying symptoms have underlying medical conditions, Kumar said.
Despite the new variant, health officials said that overall public is in a much better place than a year ago, adding the delta variant remains a concern and is largely responsible for the uptick in positive cases in Connecticut and in the U.S.
“There is a variant out there now that is doing a number on us,” Wu said. “That’s delta. There are several dozen mutations.”
Health officials said more information about the variant’s transmissibility and severity will be available in the coming days and weeks, but encouraged the public to continue to take prevention seriously. As winter approaches, health officials encouraged people to wear masks indoors and social distance if among unfamiliar people. They are also encouraging people to get their first vaccine and boosters if their second shot was more than six months ago.
“The more transmission we have the more likely variants are going to pop up,” Wu said.