Nov. 29—Gov. Janet Mills said Monday that her public health advisers will closely monitor the new coronavirus variant omicron in the coming days, but she stopped short of calling for renewed restrictions as a precaution against its spread.
In a statement, Mills said there have not been any cases of omicron detected in the United States so far but Maine's partnership with The Jackson Laboratory, which conducts genomic sequencing on COVID-19 tests, "positions us well to detect this variant."
"We will also remain in close contact with our hospital systems and other health care providers to assess their capacity and work with them to ensure that Maine people have access to quality health care," Mills said.
"The emergence of omicron once again underscores the importance of taking commonsense steps like wearing masks when inside at public places, and, most importantly, getting vaccinated, including now getting your booster if you can. Vaccination remains the best and most effective way to protect your health and that of your loved ones, and we continue to strongly urge Maine people to get their shot, regardless of whether it's your first or your third."
The governor's office did not respond directly to questions about the potential for new restrictions but instead shared the statement distributed to all media about plans to monitor the variant and urging vaccinations.
Like Mills, most governors across the country are urging caution but are not yet calling for restrictions in response to the latest version of the coronavirus that has added yet another layer of uncertainty to a pandemic that has persisted for 20 months. Similarly, President Biden said Monday that the variant is potentially concerning, but not a reason to panic, and he didn't call for any restrictions, only for people to get vaccinated and get booster shots if they haven't already.
Researchers are still learning about omicron, which has dozens of individual mutations. There is some concern about its potential for high transmissibility and it's unclear how well the vaccines will work against it. Some early data out of South Africa, where it was first detected, suggest symptoms have been mild, however.
As with other variants that have emerged during the pandemic, it's likely only a matter of time before the omicron variant is detected here.
"With most of these things, by the time we know to look for it, it's already here," said Lori Banks, a professor of biology at Bates College and an expert in molecular virology.
The possibility of a new variant comes at a challenging time.
Maine has not reported the number of new infections since last Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holiday. The totals released on Tuesday will be for the five-day period from Thursday-Monday. Last week, virus transmission remained as heavy as it's been in Maine throughout the pandemic, nearly 700 cases on average for the most recent seven-day period.
Cases have been rising across the country as well, by more than 40 percent on average each day over the last month, according to the U.S. CDC.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, meanwhile, remained above 300 for the seventh consecutive day on Monday.
According to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 322 individuals in the hospital, including 99 in critical care and 43 on ventilators. Since this time last month, hospitalizations have increased by 63 percent. Across the country, the daily average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 decreased by 8 percent in that time.
Banks said the emergence of new variants was both predicted and predictable.
"The virus is able to mutate whenever it replicates," she explained. "But there are definitely reasons for concern, especially if we're seeing variants that could threaten the efficacy of vaccines we have available. That's the biggest scary part right now."
Scientists are still studying whether the vaccines in circulation offer protection against the omicron variant, but Banks said the same public health measures that have been recommended for months continue to apply. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask indoors when possible.
Unfortunately, she said, the collective response to the pandemic so far has been "the worst group project ever," and said we may have missed a chance to achieve herd immunity.
As of Monday, Maine had administered 912,701 final doses of vaccines, which represents 67.9 percent of all residents, and 285,103 booster doses, or 21.2 percent. Four Maine counties still have yet to reach a vaccination rate of 60 percent — Somerset, Piscataquis, Oxford and Franklin.
ADDING TESTING CAPACITY
Ryan Tewhey leads a team of researchers at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor that has been conducting genomic sequencing on COVID-19 tests for more than a year and is now planning to add capacity to test more samples.
The weekly surveillance conducted for the Maine CDC involves taking samples from patients who test positive, amplifying them to see every minute detail and then comparing the samples against hundreds of others to look for differences and matches.
Tewhey said the concern about omicron is certainly warranted, but it's also early.
"I think caution is always required when interpreting data this early and especially when the bulk of the information is from a single country," he said. "It is still unclear what the actual transmissibility is relative to delta.
"How omicron behaves the next few weeks as it spreads will be very telling and something I will be keeping a close eye on," Tewhey added. "Thankfully, South Africa has an excellent viral surveillance program allowing them to identify the variant and inform the international community early."