COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) - While Omicron, the latest COVID variant of concern, has yet to be identified in the United States, health officials believe if the variant isn't already in Colorado, it will be soon.
“If we follow what has happened with previous variants of COVID, it appears to be a matter of time before it is spread," said Dr. Ruth Johnson, Medical Director for the El Paso County Health Department. "Part of that is due to the fact that we know that there are a couple of days in which we are already percolating and incubating the virus before it is detectable. And then before we may even have symptoms, we can be spreading it for a couple of days. So it would be a natural implication that it's already present in the United States and/or Colorado."
"I would say within the next week, maybe two weeks, I think we'll have an announcement that we've identified the first case," said Dr. Michelle Barron, Senior Medical Director of Infection Prevention at UCHealth.
Omicron has been identified in over a dozen countries so far, and was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on November 24. At this point, the WHO says it's not clear if Omicron is more transmissible than other COVID-19 variants. However, preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron -- people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron.
"South Africa has already been through multiple waves of COVID, so Omicron again tells us that potentially natural immunity is maybe not as effective," said Dr. Barron.
Though Omicron could already be in Colorado, we likely won't know for sure for another week. That's because the testing needed to confirm what type of variant someone has after getting a COVID test takes several days.
"The PCR testing is coming back within 24 to 48 hours," said Dr. Johnson "But genomic sequencing can take seven to ten days just because of the whole process and the science of it. So let's say we had one sample that popped today. It would be seven to ten days, potentially before that might be sequenced and confirmed."
In a press conference Monday, President Joe Biden stressed that this new variant is a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic."
"We'll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion," said President Biden. "We have more tools today to fight the variant than we ever had before, from vaccines to boosters to vaccines for children."
The El Paso County Health Department emphasizes the importance of getting vaccinated and says as long as there are large populations of unvaccinated people, the virus will continue to mutate and we will see more variants, some of which may resist vaccination.
"I think any time that the virus has an opportunity to multiply unmitigated, and that's just not from person to person in social spread, but also within those individuals where they have an unmitigated chance to create more copies of itself, there is more opportunity for mutation," said Dr. Johnson.
UCHealth also reminds everyone there's a different variant already wreaking havoc on Colorado hospital systems.
"Delta is still out there and causing infections and hospitalizing patients, and the vaccines work for that, for sure,” said Dr. Barron.
If you need a vaccine, booster, or COVID-19 test, you can find information at the following links:
- El Paso County Health
- Pueblo County Health
- Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment
- Call 1-877-COVAXCO (1-877-268-2926)