As state Department of Health officials were giving their regular COVID briefing on Wednesday, news broke that the first case of the Omicron variant had been detected in California.
“Don’t be surprised if you get a positive case of Omicron variant in the state of Washington,” said Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah in reaction as he read the Omicron news to reporters on the call. “Again, not a time to panic. It is what it is.”
Shah reiterated that for those who’ve already received their COVID vaccines, time is of the essence now to receive a booster for those 18 and older, even with reports of limited appointments at area pharmacies.
“Don’t try to wait for the perfect booster. If you can get somewhere where you get an appointment and they get you a booster. Then take the one that is available,” he said.
As of Wednesday morning, Washington COVID genetic sequencing labs still had not detected the variant in the state, with priority given in contact and case investigations around anyone who’s traveled from a country that has already reported Omicron.
Officials still do not know the level of infectious spread or severity of illness capable by the new variant or how effective vaccines will be in preventing severe illness with the new variant, first detected last week in South Africa.
However, Shah and others Wednesday noted the vaccines will offer a baseline protection.
South Africa has reported exponential rise in cases within four to five days amid low vaccine rates there.
Washington state health officials on Wednesday emphasized that while vaccines remain important as the first line of defense even against Omicron, and particularly for those planning travel, testing is also critical.
For those planning to travel, “especially internationally or if you are in a situation where you are not vaccinated, and you are going to be around other people, please get tested,” Shah said. “That is so key to the work ahead is to keep people safe, protected, and really safe and protected around each other as well.”
Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases with the state DOH, said that for now, Omicron didn’t appear to be more deadly, but more infectious as the virus has evolved post-Delta.
Answers to how effective current treatments and vaccines will be to Omicron won’t come overnight, but will be available by mid-December as case trends start to emerge.
“We’re talking weeks before we start getting some of this information,” Lindquist said.
Michele Roberts, acting assistant secretary for the state DOH, reported that vaccine uptake has continued at a notable pace for pediatric patients, with 129,000 children between the ages of five and 11 initiating COVID vaccination so far.
Statewide, nearly 81 percent of those ages 12 and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and more than 74 percent of that age group is fully vaccinated, Roberts reported.
“Across the state, we’ve given out more than 10.7 million doses of vaccine in less than 12 months. That’s really incredible. This time last year, we were still preparing to get the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine in our state. Fast forward to today, more than 5.2 million people are at least partially vaccinated,” she said.
However, the last holdouts remain at a level health officials are not happy with, with some evidence now, Lindquist noted, that those previously infected with COVID and not vaccinated showed twice the rate of reinfection as those vaccinated.
According to Lindquist, the current state model shows 34%, “or a third of the entire state’s population is still vulnerable for this infection, meaning that they didn’t get vaccinated or they didn’t get infected.
“That is just simply unacceptable,” he added.