Local health officials are racing to get ahead of a newly discovered COVID-19 variant, worried about a potential increase in transmissibility and vaccine evasion.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed one omicron case detected by UC San Francisco. The person returned from South Africa last week, is fully vaccinated and has mild symptoms, the CDC said.
“We are closely monitoring the omicron variant of COVID-19 and using our robust sequencing program to look for any potential spread in Santa Clara County,” public health officials told San José Spotlight.
Omicron, a new COVID variant putting the globe on edge, was first discovered among college students in South Africa in late November.
“We have always expected this variant to spread,” Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, told San José Spotlight. “There’s a lot we don’t know about it but the advice stays, which is to get your booster doses and stay in front of this.”
Scientists believe omicron to be the most infectious COVID variant yet, but it will take weeks before they fully understand it.
The surge in COVID cases in South Africa could also be driven by the strain’s ability to reduce vaccine efficacy, said Dr. Jorge Salinas, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University.
“This is a speculation, but perhaps the new variant is replacing delta because it can infect people that delta cannot,” Salinas told San José Spotlight. “But there is no evidence yet that the protection that vaccines give you against severe disease or death is compromised, which is good news.”
The strain has also been detected in two dozen countries across at least five continents, including Canada. The variant poses a “very high” risk, the World Health Organization said Monday.
“We know that these latest developments are causing concern, but we are confident that our community will continue to adapt and persevere, as we have throughout the pandemic,” Santa Clara County officials told San José Spotlight.
Scientists believe the strain is spreading much faster than others because of its mutations. The omicron variant has about 50 mutations across its genome, while other variants, including the delta variant that has driven recent surges, have fewer than 20 mutations.
Still, there’s not enough data to tell the potential impact of the new COVID variant, experts said.
“All we know is the biochemistry of it,” Rutherford said. “We don’t know how it behaves clinically. We don’t know how it behaves epidemiologically. We don’t know how rapidly it’s transmitted or not.”
Santa Clara County officials confirmed Wednesday the variant has not been detected in the county, but experts believe it’s inevitable as they brace for a potential surge in COVID cases with the holidays approaching.
“There are many risk factors that could make this winter a bad one,” Salinas said.
Contributing risk factors include low vaccination rates, lack of rapid testing and the already overwhelmed hospital systems, he said.
Santa Clara County—and the Bay Area in general—is in a good spot to fight the new variant due to its high vaccination rate, experts said. As of Wednesday, 77.7% of all residents in the county are vaccinated and more than 404,000 people have received a booster shot, county data shows. The county started administering COVID shots to young children in November.
Local health officials and experts said vaccines and boosters remain the best defense against infection, serious illness and death. Additional precautions, such as testing, masking and hand-washing, should also be taken, said Dr. B. B. Gerstman, professor emeritus of public health at San Jose State University.
Salinas said the public should understand this virus is here to stay in one form or another.
“We’ve been hoping that we could get rid of it for good and move on, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re going to have to live with it. We need to mitigate risks and decrease the chance that we’re going to get infected.”