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COVID: Health Experts Analyzing Omicron Variant Before It Reaches U.S.

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- The race to fight the Omicron variant is on, but a lot is still unknown about this new strain of coronavirus. Health leaders are analyzing the mutation's elements before it reaches the United States.

UC Berkeley Professor and infectious disease expert Dr. John Swartzberg said there are three questions that researchers are trying to figure out: how transmissible it is, how resistant it is to vaccines and natural immunity, and how sick it will make people.

"My first thought was, 'Oh no, here we go again,' with a big question mark," Dr. Swartzberg said. "We were sitting there thinking it's the end game and then along comes Omicron."

On Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky once again urged Americans to get vaccinated and get the booster. Health experts have said it's only a matter of time before the variant reaches the U.S., if it's not here already.

The vaccinations, they've said, is a "safe" tool to fight the virus.

"We are actively looking for the Omicron variant," Dr. Walenksy said. "We don't know everything we need to know yet about the Omicron variant."

The mutation was first discovered in the South African region where it has caused a surge in cases.

However, Dr. Swartzberg pointed out that it's unknown if the Omicron variant will have the same impact in the United States. In South Africa, the vaccination rate is much lower than in the U.S. and the Omicron variant doesn't have the Delta variant to compete with.

In the states, the Delta variant has been the dominant strain for nearly a half a year. It caused a dramatic spike in cases nationwide, and although California has seen the positivity rate decline in recent weeks, cases remain high considering the state's high vaccination rate.

In Santa Clara County on Tuesday, the health department reported that 77.5% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. However, COVID cases have plateaued for nearly a month with a 7-day rolling average of 170 to 180 cases.

Several months ago before the Delta variant came onto the scene, the county was nearing single digit cases and the population wasn't nearly as vaccinated as it is today.

Dr. Swartzberg said Americans should not yet panic about the Omicron variant since not much is yet known about it. However, they should continue to be concerned over the Delta variant.

"I don't think we're going to see any explosion here in the United States in the next week or two," said Dr. Swartzberg. "That said, people need to pay attention to Delta. It's not gone away."

For many in the country, the Omicron variant has been like deja vu to them. There are new international travel restrictions. Flights are banned from South Africa to several countries, including the U.S., and now there's talk about whether the variant is highly transmissible and more deadly than the other variants.

The CDC is stepping up its surveillance of the Omicron variant by sequencing one in every seven positive cases, which is more than what any other country is doing right now.

"This is a very formidable pathogen," said Dr. Swartzberg. "It's an organism that is trying to survive and it's finding very clever ways to do that."


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