Health experts urge patience, vigilance in face of ‘omicron’ variant
Creighton University medical experts are counseling patience but also vigilance in the face of reports of a new COVID variant emerging from South Africa.
Dubbed “omicron” and identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, the variant has caused the United States and other nations to suspend travel from multiple African nations, even as medical authorities there insist that omicron, while unusually transmissible, engenders only mild symptoms.
“I would like to stress that very little is known at this time beyond the fact that omicron is a new variant with a significant number of genetic changes compared to delta, which is the predominant variant worldwide,” says Michael Belshan, PhD, professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the Creighton University School of Medicine. “I recommend patience. Everything is speculative at this time.”
Belshan leads Creighton’s work monitoring COVID-19 variants circulating in Nebraska. Conducted under an ongoing contract with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the project enables the state to conduct extensive surveillance of COVID to detect new variants within days of their appearance.
Maureen Tierney, MD, MSc., FIDSA, assistant dean of public health at the Creighton School of Medicine and chair of the Department of Clinical Research, urged COVID vigilance while medical authorities at Creighton and around the world gather data on the omicron variant.
“Although we agree that there is much not known, what we are recommending is vaccination of the unvaccinated, booster shots, and non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as masking and social distancing,” Tierney said. “If this turns out to be a more transmissible and/or a more virulent strain, then we are better prepared. These steps will also help reduce the rising number of cases of delta.”
Tierney and Renuga Vivekanandan, MD, associate professor of medicine at Creighton and chief of infectious diseases at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy, said a new COVID strain is not the only viral challenge facing Americans this winter. The other key component is the flu.
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control put out a Health Alert Network last week describing clusters of cases of influenza, especially among younger adults and on college campuses”, said Tierney.
“Many states, including Nebraska, have detected flu activity, predominantly H3N2 which is usually more virulent and is associated with an increased rate of concomitant bacterial pneumonia.”
The CDC health alert noted that the flu strain was included in this year’s vaccine but that it is already beginning to mutate. Tierney and Vivekanandan call for a renewed commitment to battling respiratory viral infections. They offer the following recommendations:
- Encourage friends, relatives and colleagues to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
- Encourage everyone over 6 months old to get a flu shot.
- Emphasize the importance of COVID-19 booster shots for all those six months past their second mRNA (Pfizer and Moderna) shot and two months after a Johnson & Johnson shot.
- Mask when indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces in areas of high or sustained community transmission (almost all of Nebraska, including Douglas County).
- Remind everyone that masking and social distancing also help reduce flu transmission.
- If sick with respiratory symptoms, get tested for flu and COVID and stay home.
- Ask your doctor if you should be treated for the flu and/or bacterial pneumonia while awaiting test results.
- If you test positive for COVID-19, ask your health care provider if you are someone who should receive monoclonal antibodies.