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With Omicron on the way, ‘boosters are what’s up’

Dr. Umair Shah, the Washington state Secretary of Health, right, gets a tour of the mass vaccination site at the Spokane Arena from Jennifer Dixon, left, of the Department of Health Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Shah said there have been no cases of the new coronavirus variant, named omicron, discovered in Washington – yet.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Dr. Umair Shah, the Washington state Secretary of Health, right, gets a tour of the mass vaccination site at the Spokane Arena from Jennifer Dixon, left, of the Department of Health Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Shah said there have been no cases of the new coronavirus variant, named omicron, discovered in Washington – yet. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The latest variant of COVID-19, called omicron, has not been detected in the United States yet, but health officials expect it will be soon.

“Thus far we have not genotyped this in our state, but given its spread across the globe it will just be a matter of time before it’s here,” State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters Monday.

So far, little is known about the omicron variant, other than it was first detected in South Africa.

Shah said it could take weeks before scientists and public health experts can determine how transmissible the new variant is compared to the delta variant, as well as how effective vaccines are against it .

It is still too early to determine if omicron is more virulent than delta or causes more severe symptoms.

Experts do expect that current testing and genotyping infrastructure will detect the variant as quickly as it arrives, however.

Washington state ranks in the top 10 states in the country for its rate of genotyping cases as well as overall number of cases sequenced, Shah said. This is due to both public and private health labs partnering with the Department of Health to examine a percentage of positive COVID-19 testing samples for variants.

Omicron is similar to the alpha variant, which began spreading a year ago and sometimes is called the British variant, in that it has a specific deletion in its spike protein.

This means some labs, like the virology laboratory at the University of Washington Medical Center, will begin running a preliminary test on positive samples to detect this deletion, Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director at that lab, said.

The preliminary test, which can produce results in just a few hours, will help scientists flag potential omicron samples and send them in for full genotyping.

Greninger said variants with mutations like omicron have the potential to cut down a person’s antibody levels, also called neutralizing titers.

“The best way to fight in the short run is to drive up your titers, so boosters are really what’s up,” Greninger said.

The federal government responded to the omicron news and preliminary data from South Africa by changing its language around booster doses on Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says adults who are eligible – meaning six months past Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months past Johnson & Johnson vaccine – “should” get a booster. Pfizer is expected to ask the Food and Drug Administration this week for authorization to offer boosters for those ages 16 and 17.

Previously the CDC said some adults not in high-risk categories “may” get a booster.

“This is really important,” Shah said. “We know waning immunity is going to occur, and we want to make sure vaccines are as effective as possible.”

Shah also asked Washington residents who haven’t been vaccinated at all against COVID-19 to begin their series.

To prevent the new variant from spreading once it’s detected, health officials said what’s been working –masking, vaccines, distancing and testing – will continue to be effective.

Locally and statewide, hospitalizations for the virus continue to decline, but facilities are still very busy. Without another COVID spike, it will take local hospitals well into the first quarter of 2022 to catch up on delayed medical procedures and surgeries.

“Our limiting factor is available inpatient beds,” Greg Repetti, president of Deaconess and Valley Hospitals, said.

He said many outpatient procedures are getting done, but those that require a patient to stay at the hospital overnight are taking more time to complete due to capacity and staffing.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 45 new COVID-19 cases on Monday. Over Thanksgiving and the long weekend, the district reported 329 additional cases.

There are 71 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane hospitals.

There have been additional deaths from the virus reported by SRHD as well. There have been 1,092 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

The Panhandle Health District reported 131 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and over the weekend as well as additional deaths.

There have been 710 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.

There are 87 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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