New COVID-19 variant ‘concerning’ for Arizona health leaders

Officials say too much still unknown


A new COVID-19 variant has the world buzzing, but Arizona officials say it’s too soon to worry about it just yet.

This past Friday, the World Health Organization designated the newly-detected omicron variant as a “variant of concern” after it was first identified in South Africa and on Monday said that consequences of a future surge of the variant could have “severe consequences.”

It’s the latest variant named after a letter in the Greek alphabet, following in the footsteps of delta and beta. Within days, countries around the world shut their borders out to several southern Africa countries in an effort to stop the spread, including the U.S. But unlike the previous two variants, omicron has yet to be found in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Canada recorded its first positive case of the variant on Monday, making it the first instance of omicron in North America thus far.

In a blog post, Don Herrington, interim director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the state’s residents shouldn’t be alarmed just yet.

“Omicron, with a high number of mutations, is indeed concerning, hence the attention from public health leaders worldwide,” Herrington wrote. “But too much remains unknown for it to be more than that at this time. Scientists are assessing whether omicron’s mutations make it more transmissible, more severe, or resistant to current vaccines and antibody treatments. That information will come to ADHS from our federal partners at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Herrington’s message comes days after ADHS joined with health care leaders from across Arizona to beg the public to stay vigilant as COVID-19 continues to spread, causing understaffed and overworked hospitals added stress.

Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General and adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey on public health emergency preparedness, urged Arizonans to continue practicing COVID-19 mitigation efforts as the holidays approach in order to help lessen hospital capacity. Get vaccinated, get booster shots, get a flu shot, mask up and stay home if you’re feeling sick, he and other health officials pleaded on Tuesday at a news conference.

“Cases are rising again, even before Thanksgiving get-togethers,” said Carmona, “[We are] asking Arizonans to help us in this battle against an invisible enemy.”

Nearly 10% of all COVID-19 tests in the state are returning positive, according to ADHS data, and the state saw more than 1,900 new cases reported Monday with one additional death. Arizona has now seen more than 1.2 million cases of the virus and 22,230 deaths since the first case was identified in the state in early 2020. Just 62.2% of the state’s population is vaccinated.

Much of the current virus surge is owed to the highly transmissible delta variant.

TGen, which tests COVID-19 samples for variants in Arizona, has the delta variant listed as a variant of concern in the state. First identified in India, delta is harder to combat with monoclonal antibody treatments and is more likely to penetrate the defense of vaccines. Approximately 21,924 cases where the delta variant have been positively identifi ed so far in Arizona. That’s a decent chunk of overall 54,360 total cases.

TGen also lists the Brazilian- born gamma variant as one being monitored, though it is of less concern for health officials than delta at the moment.

While omicron is new and not fully understood, Herrington cautioned Arizonans against doing anything differently to keep themselves and their communities safe.

“We are in regular contact with federal partners on matters related to COVID-19, including the omicron variant, and will share important information as soon as we have it,” he wrote. “For now, however, I continue to urge everyone to follow the steps public health has recommended consistently. Vaccination, boosters, and mitigation are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and nothing at this time suggests that won’t continue to be the case.”


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