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Omicron variant is in Washington state, details of cases unknown

Dr. Umair Shah, the Washington state Secretary of Health, talks with the media after touring the mass vaccination site at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena during a February visit. Shah said the state expects to find more cases of COVID-19 from the omicron variant in the coming weeks.   (SSR)
Dr. Umair Shah, the Washington state Secretary of Health, talks with the media after touring the mass vaccination site at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena during a February visit. Shah said the state expects to find more cases of COVID-19 from the omicron variant in the coming weeks.  (SSR)

The omicron variant landed in Washington state over the weekend in people from three different counties in the Puget Sound area.

On Saturday, the Department of Health confirmed that three people in their 20s and 30s tested positive for the omicron variant, from Thurston, Pierce and King Counties. Health officials said they do not believe the cases are connected.

Symptoms, travel history, vaccination status and further details in these three cases were still not available on Monday.

Health officials said omicron is cause for concern but not to panic.

“The next few weeks will be critical in determining how this variant spreads compared to delta,” State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters on Saturday.

The state’s public health lab in addition to the University of Washington’s virology lab and private labs throughout the state are sequencing positive COVID-19 samples for the new variant.

Preliminary reports suggest the new variant could be as transmissible as delta, King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said.

“Preliminary data suggest that this virus may spread even more readily than the delta variant, and in addition, preliminary data suggest that people who had COVID-19 in the past are more likely to be reinfected with omicron,” Duchin told reporters Saturday.

Duchin and other health officials expect to see additional cases in the coming weeks.

The arrival of a new variant has spurred demand for vaccines, including booster doses in the state. Washington will receive 70,000 additional Moderna doses this week, to help with increased demand.

It’s still not clear how virulent infections with omicron are or how severe disease is with the variant compared to other variants.

Some confirmed omicron cases in the United States have been in fully vaccinated people experiencing mild symptoms.

The omicron variant has been detected in 18 states so far.

While there are no public health laboratories sequencing positive samples for variants in Spokane, health officials locally and statewide said eastern Washington is covered.

Positive cases from Spokane County are usually sent to the state pubic health lab in Shoreline or the University of Washington.

“With past variants we have had timely information and the Public Health Laboratory will continue to sequence a percentage of cases as they have done in the past,” Dr. Francisco Velázquez said in a statement to The Spokesman-Review. “Locally we will be following clinical history, such as international travel, to identify cases that may need to be sequenced so we can send them directly to the Public Health Laboratory.”

While more than 74% of the state population 12 years old and older is fully vaccinated, there are still pockets, particularly in Eastern Washington, with the majority of people not initiating vaccination. It is these regions public health officials are concerned about with omicron’s arrival.

“We’re vulnerable in our unvaccinated communities where cases could spread really fast, and probably the burden of severe illness will be in unvaccinated people,” Duchin told reporters.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 68 new COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths on Monday.

There have been 1,109 deaths due to the virus in Spokane County residents. There are 69 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District reported 154 new virus cases and a dozen new deaths.

There have been 734 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents. There are 77 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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