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Health, Science & Environment

Utah reports first case of COVID-19 omicron variant

COVID-19 virus SARS-COV-2 OMICRON strain, covid-19 South African variant B.1.1.529 omicron
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The case is an older adult, lives in the Southwest corner of the state and recently traveled to South Africa.

Utah health officials announced the state’s first case of the COVID-19 omicron variant Friday. The newest “variant of concern” has spread rapidly around the world since it was first discovered in South Africa late last month.

The state health department was careful not to disclose any details that could identify the individual but said they are an “older adult,” live within the Southwest Utah Public Health District — which includes Beaver, Garfield, Kane, Iron and Washington counties — and recently returned to Utah from travel in South Africa. The individual had been fully vaccinated, but was tested after experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19.

“We have conducted a full investigation of this case, including contact tracing and identifying close contacts of this individual,” said Utah Department of Health spokesperson Tom Hudachko. “Everybody involved in the case has been extraordinarily cooperative and is following the quarantine, isolation and testing guidance that we have provided.”

State epidemiologist Leisha Nolen said health officials were able to identify people with a high risk of exposure to the individual and are making sure they also stay at home and monitor themselves for symptoms “so that we can really help prevent this spreading onward.”

Given the high number of Utahns traveling in and out of the state, she said it is not surprising the omicron variant was found here. She noted the discovery of the case should not change the way people should protect themselves, but reinforces that the virus should be taken seriously.

Kelly Oakeson, a bioinformatician at the Utah Public Health Laboratory, said the case was identified through regular sequencing done by the state public health lab. He said about 1,500 positive tests are sequenced every other day in Utah, with results returning every 8-10 days on average. This case, though, was discovered after samples were collected earlier this week.

“We've been operating at this level now for numerous months,” Oakeson said. “And this gives us a very nice, robust surveillance system for the current delta variants and all the delta sublineages we have, plus now omicron and whatever else might be arising in the future.”

Nolen noted many of the key questions about the omicron variant have yet to be answered, such as whether it spreads more easily, causes more severe disease and how well vaccines work against it.

But she said vaccines and booster shots still offer the best protection against COVID-19 and its variants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all adults 18 and older get booster shots when eligible — six months after receiving either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two months after receiving Johnson & Johnson.

The CDC also recommends international travelers who are unvaccinated isolate at home for a week after returning and all travelers get tested 3-5 days after they return.

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