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Omicron confirmed in Utah; doctor says state still reeling from delta

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | Dec 3, 2021

Steven Senne, Associated Press

Dr. Manjul Shukla transfers Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at a mobile vaccination clinic in Worcester, Mass. As the U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of the omicron variant, doctors across the country are experiencing a more imminent crisis with a delta variant that is sending record numbers of people to the hospital in New England and the Midwest.

The COVID-19 omicron variant has arrived in Utah.

The Utah Department of Health announced Friday that the state confirmed its first case of the wide-spreading mutation, detected in an resident who had recently returned from a trip to South Africa. The person was described as an “older adult” who lives inside the Southwest Utah Public Health District, which covers Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties.

The UDOH announcement said the person “is fully vaccinated, received monoclonal antibody treatment, and is recovering at home after experiencing only mild symptoms.”

“Given the high number of Utahns traveling in and out of the state, it is not surprising the Omicron variant has been found in Utah,” Dr. Leisha Nolen, state epidemiologist at the UDOH, stated in the announcement. “The discovery of this case does not change the way Utah residents should protect themselves, but reinforces that we all need to take this virus seriously.”

Earlier Friday, Dr. Andy Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious disease at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Medical Center, said during a news conference that the variant is now spreading in the United States and in the next couple of days, even more cases will be discovered.

“We know it is pretty easily transmitted and we know it’s going to spread,” he said. “We also know with some certainty that the mutations in omicron are going to make some of our monoclonal antibodies not work very effectively, so we are going to lose some of the tools if omicron becomes really widespread.”

Pavia said it’s too early to say right now whether or not the vaccines will provide sufficient protection against omicron. However, getting fully vaccinated with a booster should provide some protection against hospitalization and death.

“We know getting two vaccines and a booster gives you much higher antibody levels and much broader levels of protection,” Pavia said. “Protection seems to be better after three doses of the vaccine, even more so than having infection. We don’t know why. We know natural immunity does provide some level of immunity, but you can die trying to get natural immunity. Also, the level of protection from natural immunity varies from person to person. Many people infected have very weak responses while other have strong responses.”

Pavia said the only way to decrease the number of infections is to get vaccinated — and not just here in the U.S. It has to be a worldwide effort, he added.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” he said.

Pavia also stressed the fact that the delta variant is still hammering Utah.

“We’re not done with the delta surge,” he said. “In Utah, we have roughly 2,000 cases a day and 1 in 5 children. The numbers are up and will be again today. Primary Children’s is still very, very busy. We have a number of kids with COVID and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). We’re running pretty close to 100% capacity most days.”

He said the same scenario is being seen in hospitals statewide and he’s concerned the Thanksgiving holiday will bring even more people to the hospital, which is strained by staff shortages.

“If we do see an increase in counts from the Thanksgiving holiday, then we’re going to see a surge in hospitalizations toward the end of next week,” he said. “We have a real problem here in Utah. There are 1.4 million not vaccinated yet. Perhaps concern about omicron should get people’s attention. Omicron is very good at causing reinfection. We need to be prepared rather than pretend everything is OK.”

For parents taking a wait-and-see approach with the vaccine, Pavia said 70,000 kids in Utah and well over 1 million kids in the country have now been vaccinated. No serious side effects have been detected, he said.

“I don’t think anyone should wait, although it’s an understandable feeling, but a million is a pretty good number where we can start to feel pretty good about it,” he said. “When we think about our kids, let’s realize the holidays are coming up. They need to get a second dose if that haven’t so we can have that peace of mind as they go out on Christmas vacation and get together with family and friends. We have the tools to combat omicron. It’s not the end of the world, but we’re not using them. Get vaccinated. If you’ve have two doses, get your third. Wear masks if you’re in a crowd, classroom, grocery store.”

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