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DOH, health director ‘keeping our ears open’ about omicron variant

State Health Director Dr. Libby Char said Friday she and her colleagues “are very much attuned to” the new novel coronavirus variant from South Africa called the omicron variant and are “keeping our ears open.”

“We don’t know a lot about it yet,” Char said during an online livestream. “The thought is that it’s more transmissible than the original COVID variant and it could have mechanisms, mutations that kind of allow it to be … less vaccine susceptible. And so, those are obviously very concerning characteristics of it.”

Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s School of Public Health said in an email that already “there are preliminary signs that (omicron) is driving a new wave (of coronavirus infections) in South Africa.”

“Health officials are looking particularly at a region called Gauteng,” Jetelina said. “In just one week, test positivity rate increased from 1% to 30%. This is incredibly fast.”

According to Char, “The good news is the state lab is actively tracking. So far, we haven’t seen any of those variants here in Hawaii, yet.”

“The thing to note is that, right now, Hawaii is in a very good place,” she continued. “We’ve done a good job and people have been, you know, respectful of each other and have — for the most part — done what they need to do and have made some good decisions.

“We saw with the Delta variant how quickly that can change, and especially when things are very transmissible. Again, we don’t know that much about this omicron variant yet, but it reminds us we really need to make smart choices. Everything that we’ve done up to this point for any of the variants or even the original COVID virus still holds true. So, no matter if it’s a variant or not, it’s still going to be more easily transmitted if we’re indoors, if there’s a lot of people there clustered together, if we’re not wearing masks, and if people are not vaccinated. And so, it’s just the degree to which there’s ease of transmission, based on if the variant has other mutations or properties or characteristics that allow it to be more easily vaccinated.”

According to Jetelina, the variant now known as omicron was first discovered in Botswana on Nov. 11 and “was quickly identified in South Africa three days later and identified in two cases in Hong Kong.”

On Friday, Israel — which has one of the world’s highest fully vaccinated rates at 62% — and Belgium announced the presence of omicron cases.

“The Belgium case was a young, unvaccinated woman who developed flu-like symptoms 11 days after traveling to Egypt via Turkey,” Jetelina said. “She had no links to South Africa. This means that the virus is already circulating in communities.”

Char said omicron “could flare up all over.”

“Look around the world. COVID is just going nuts in Europe, all across Europe,” she said. “There are 20 states in the U.S. that are seeing up trends in their COVID case counts. And I think there are a few states that have seen the highest number of COVID cases that they have at any time during the pandemic. So we are absolutely not out of this pandemic yet.”

Char said she still thinks the novel coronavirus pandemic will end and the virus will “reach endemic phase, where COVID is amongst us, and we have to learn to deal with it.”

“So what does that mean? I think it’s going to be that same thing, that we know what keeps us safe,” she said. “And it’s just sort of what’s going on in the environment as to what kind of mitigation measures that we need to employ. And so, if COVID is still really going on in our community, then, we’re going to employ more of those measures — smaller gathering sizes, wearing our masks indoors, keeping our distance, planning for the birthday party for your kids outdoors instead of indoors, things like that.

“And as more and more people get vaccinated — and 70% is not enough, based on how transmissible these variants have become … and as the levels come down and it’s safer, than maybe you have a little bit larger gatherings than you do when COVID’s really raging. And maybe you can do more things indoors than you can when COVID’s really raging.

“So I think we really have the tools, and it’s about us balancing that and employing those mitigation measures based on what’s going on in our environment.”

Email John Burnett at
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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