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The omicron variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus is in Idaho. Here’s what we know.

The coronavirus is named for its spikes, or “crown.” (Image courtesy of Pixabay)
The coronavirus is named for its spikes, or “crown.” (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

Researchers are still working to determine how much of a threat omicron could be.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been identified in Idaho, the Central District Health department announced Friday.

The variant had already been identified in neighboring states, including Washington and Utah.

Central District Health said the variant was confirmed in a test sample from an Ada County resident who reported recent out-of-state travel.

“The resident is over the age of 50 and experienced very mild symptoms, likely due to being fully vaccinated,” CDH said in a news release Friday afternoon.

“It’s important for people to realize that this new and highly transmissible variant has now been detected in Idaho, and many areas across the U.S.,” Lindsay Haskell, communicable disease control manager for CDH, said in the release. “Many Idahoans regularly travel this time of year, and we need to remember to continue to take precautions, including receiving your vaccine or vaccine booster if you have not done so already.”

Idaho public health officials watched for omicron, as delta variant spread

Idaho laboratories were on the lookout since late November for one of omicron’s mutations — one that leaves a telltale sign in COVID-19 test results. That mutation doesn’t exist in the delta variant, so its appearance in test results is a red flag for omicron.

The delta variant has dominated Idaho since July. It made up nearly all COVID-19 infections throughout the fall surge that pushed Idaho’s health care system near collapse.

Labs across the world have put COVID-19 test samples through a special, time-consuming process — “sequencing” the virus — to find certain mutations. They use that process to confirm the type of variant circulating in a community.

Dr. Christopher Ball, director of the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories, said the bureau reached out to all Idaho labs in late November. He urged laboratories to keep an eye out for test results with that telltale sign that flags them as possible omicron cases. No Idaho laboratories had identified those kinds of test results as of Nov. 30, he said.

Still unclear if omicron spreads easier, makes people sicker or escapes antibodies

The omicron variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa in late November, shocking experts with its dozens of mutations. The mutations were concerning enough that omicron was almost immediately placed on the World Health Organization’s “variants of concern” list.

However, it’s unclear how much of a threat the new variant is. Scientists are working to determine whether omicron is more easily transmitted than the highly infectious delta, or if there’s another reason it seems to spread rapidly.

They’re also studying whether omicron’s mutations make it easier for the virus to fend off antibodies from vaccines, from prior COVID-19 infection, or from monoclonal antibody treatments.

“We have to be humble in acknowledging that there’s a lot to be learned about this variant, and a lot of work going on, a lot that we just don’t know,” Idaho State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said Nov. 30, prior to the variant’s discovery in Idaho.

Idaho and CDC epidemiologists recommend vaccines, masks, early treatment

Hahn and others, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend that Idahoans get vaccinated and receive a booster dose, if they haven’t already.

The CEO of Moderna recently expressed concern about how his company’s highly effective vaccine could hold up against omicron.

But Hahn and other public health and infectious disease physicians say Idahoans shouldn’t wait for an omicron-targeting vaccine. They should get the existing vaccines now, for two reasons, Hahn said.

“First of all, right now we have delta,” she said. “We still have significant transmission in Idaho. Many of us are planning holiday festivities that are still coming up. And this is a good protection for what we have in Idaho now. So we really urge vaccination for what’s out there right now.”

Vaccine makers have said it will take at least a few months for them to start producing new vaccines to more precisely target certain variants.

Dr. Sky Blue of Sawtooth Epidemiology & Infectious Diseases said in a recent media briefing that the existing COVID-19 vaccines, especially booster shots, appear to not only protect people from severe infection with older variants, there’s evidence they also help people’s immune systems recognize and fight off new variants — even ones that haven’t been recognized yet.

A preliminary study found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, plus a booster, produced enough neutralizing antibodies to fight the virus. Nonetheless, vaccine manufacturers say they are preparing omicron-specific booster shots that would be ready this spring.

Secondly, Hahn said, she thinks of vaccines like a seatbelt: She would choose to buckle up regardless of whether a seatbelt could reduce the likelihood of death or serious injury by 10% or by 90%.

She also noted that it’s still too soon to know for sure whether omicron can evade immunity.

“It’s going to be your best protection against (any variant) until manufacturers have time to rethink the vaccine, potentially, or re-engineer one,” Hahn said. “So, I think the message is twofold. One is: delta is out there right now. It’s still circulating, it’s still a threat. Do it now to protect yourself from what we know is in Idaho. And number two: for the moment, it’s the best vaccine we have.”

Public health officials in Idaho recommend that everyone 5 years of age or older get the COVID-19 vaccine, and that all adults 18 and older get a COVID-19 booster shot. Idahoans age 16 and 17 may also receive a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Officials also say Idahoans should continue to use face coverings, practice social distancing, stay home when sick, get tested if they have symptoms or an exposure to COVID-19, and seek medical care as soon as they can, in case they need early treatment such as monoclonal antibodies.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.