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Local health officials address concerns over newly-discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant, urge vaccination

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 7:48 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 29, 2021 at 8:26 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As concerns grow over the newly-discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant that’s led to travel restrictions in at least 44 countries, local health officials are urging caution on Monday.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is “proactively preparing” for any potential threats posed by the Omicron variant, and already testing for it.

“First of all this is a variant of concern, not a variant of panic,” Dr. Helmut Albrecht, an infectious disease specialist at Prisma Health, said. “It’s not surprising, it’s what viruses do and what we’re prepared for this virus to do. SARS-CoV-2 is just a better shape-shifter than we thought.”

In a statement Monday, DHEC said they are “closely monitoring emerging information on the newly identified Omicron variant as well as the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) guidance on it.”

They have yet to detect any cases in South Carolina, but Albrecht said the variant is likely already in the state – or will be within days.

“What’s different about this virus is that it has an enormous amount of mutations, many, many more than Delta,” he said. “Only good news about it, it’s probably easier to detect than most other viruses.”

DHEC continues to urge vaccination and boosters as the best protection against the virus.

As of Monday’s DHEC data, 50 percent of all eligible South Carolinians are fully vaccinated. 57.9 percent of those eligible have received at least one dose, and 6.9 percent of South Carolina kids aged 5-11 have started their vaccination.

Experts had previously said that a 70 to 80 percent vaccination rate would be needed for herd immunity, but Albrecht said in light of new variants that number should be higher.

According to DHEC, three key questions remain on Omicron: its severity, transmissibility and the effectiveness of current vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments to fight it.

“Vaccines will retain some effect, probably some significant effect, but it will be less than against other virus strains,” Albrecht said. “This is really the big question, how well does the vaccine or vaccine plus booster, hold up with this? We will have the answer within days. But there will be less protection, but it will be significantly more than not having protection.”

Albrecht said he understands those fatigued by Omicron’s emergence, but says now is not the time to let the guard down.

“The virus doesn’t care whether we are fatigued or not,” he said. “And all of us want to be back, but ignoring it will delay us coming back even more than dealing with it. And dealing with it means that we take it seriously, that we do the right things and that we get virtually everybody vaccinated.”

Albrecht said it is too early to tell how transmissible this variant is, but he’s worried about its ability to spread, especially in large gatherings. Because of this, he said people may need to rethink their holiday plans based on their own personal risk assessment.

In addition to urging vaccination, DHEC is also advising South Carolina residents to wear masks indoors in public places and practice social distancing when appropriate.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are already working to adapt their vaccines to fight Omicron if necessary, but that process could take 100 days.

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