Pima County preparing for arrival of the new omicron variant

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 7:03 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Pima County health officials say it’s still too early to say when the omicron variant will show up here and how serious it might be.

“It is inevitable that cases of this virus will be reported in Pima County,” said Pima County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen. “I think there’s lots we don’t know and we all need to be a little patient.”

The variant, which was first discovered last week in South Africa has now been discovered in nearly a dozen countries forcing travel bans from many African nations.

It has not been found in the United States but has been discovered in Canada.

There are three questions Cullen says need to be asked and answered before the severity of its impact is truly known.

  • How transmissible is it?
  • How sick will people get?
  • Will the vaccine work?

Questions science is rushing to find answers to as quickly as possible and will determine the strategy going forward.

“I don’t think we know enough and right now I would caution people to not panic,” Cullen said. “I think there can be such a thing as overreaction.”

But right now there is an abundance of caution because there are so many mutations on the spike protein, 30 of them.

“The more changes (mutations) there are to the virus itself, the more risk there may be that the vaccine doesn’t have enough overage for us,” she said. “And we’ll know that very quickly.”

The vaccine makers are rushing to determine whether they are effective against the omicron variant and could know in a couple of weeks.

Meantime, the variant has been discovered in many countries, including Germany and Portugal.

Pima County uses about 8% to 15% of its PCR tests for sequencing so if or when it appears in the county, officials should know quickly which will give them a good idea of how to combat it.

In the four days since the variant was discovered over the Thanksgiving holiday, there has been much conversation between the county and its sequencer T-Gen.

“We definitely use this information to look at what our current strategies are and if we should be modifying that,” Cullen said. “I think there can be such a thing as overreaction however I don’t think you can be too cautious.”

So in the meantime, the present strategy remains in place.

“Wear your mask, wash your hands, try to socially distance and get vaccinated still apply and they are the best defense right now with the variant,” Cullen said.

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