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Hogan: Concern But No Need For Lockdowns In Maryland Over Dangerous Omicron Covid Variant

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Maryland Governor Larry Hogan told WJZ while he is concerned about the Omicron covid variant, he does not see more restrictions in the future.

"I don't see any kind of shutdowns or lockdowns. …We're going to be encouraging people to go back to the things that kept us safe in the first place, which probably means some social distancing, masking, but most importantly, getting vaccinated," the governor said Monday.  He met earlier with Maryland's Covid-19 response team.

The governor advised people to get their boosters. "Obviously, you're much better off being fully immunized. If you haven't gotten your booster, you're at greater risk."

The Omicron strain—first discovered in South Africa—has more than 50 mutations and has alarmed health officials worldwide.

It is not yet clear how effective the vaccines are against it. "What we're seeing is a number of mutations to the spike protein so I think that's why there is a widened level of concern," said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa. "We're still going to have to decipher what does that mean exactly. We're not sure yet if it makes this particular version more transmissible. That's what scientists are really racing around the clock to find out."

She advised people to get vaccinated and said now is a good time to vaccinate eligible children. "It's just a reminder that we are not out of this," Dr. Dzirasa said.

Omicron has spread quickly around the globe and has been confirmed as close as Canada.

"It's moving, and it's moving fast," said Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He said the good news is current tests can detect Omicron, but the bad news is Omicron initially looks as infectious as delta if not more.

"It may be less responsive to the vaccine. The vaccines were developed in response to the first strain, which is no longer circulating for example in the United States. That strain is extinct. All we really have now is Delta," Dr. Beyrer said.

Scientists said it could be two to three weeks before they get a better handle on the effectiveness of vaccines.

On Monday, President Biden said U.S. health officials do not currently believe "that additional measures will be needed" but are working with drugmakers to speed "contingency plans for vaccines or boosters." He plans to announce a new strategy soon to curb the virus this winter.

Mr. Biden told reporters Monday that the approach is "not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

Health authorities say Omicron carries a unique set of mutations that might give the virus an advantage in driving new surges of infections compared with the fast-spreading Delta variant, which currently makes up virtually all U.S. cases. Omicron, which may spread even faster, appears to have evolved independently from the Delta variant, descending from another strain that appeared in mid-2020.

"The Omicron variant is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far which raises serious concerns that it may be associated with significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections," European health officials said on Friday.

Named B.1.1.529 by scientists who track the evolution of the virus, Omicron also shares some distinctive changes seen in other variants of concern that have been able to evade the body's defenses built up from surviving COVID-19 or from vaccination.

Assessing Omicron's cocktail of mutations could take weeks. Scientists will need to conduct experiments with the virus and dummies engineered to mimic Omicron's characteristic mutations.

Dr. Anthony Fauci told Mr. Biden Sunday that "it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant," according to a White House statement.

South Africa, which was among the first to identify an Omicron case, has been seeing climbing infections and hospitalizations in recent weeks. Its National Institute for Communicable Diseases observed that the new variant does not seem to be leading to worse or different symptoms, which would offer some reassurance if that continues to be the case.

"This variant is a concern, not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccines in the world and the best medicines, the best scientists, and we're learning more every single day," President Biden said on Monday.

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