Omicron, a new variant of COVID-19, has been discovered in five states this week.
The new strain, which was first reported in South Africa, was found in San Francisco on Wednesday in the first known case to reach the U.S. Since then, cases have been discovered in New York, Colorado, Hawaii and Minnesota.
Marshall County Public Health Director Pat Thompson said the Omicron variant is probably further spread than is currently known.
“If it’s somewhere else, it’s going to be here too,” she said. “Until we get everyone really vaccinated the way we should, the virus is going to keep changing. Also, remember Delta is still here. It isn’t going away.”
The last variant of COVID to spread, Delta, became the dominant strain of the virus since it was discovered in May. The Omicron variant is said to be more easily spread, though it is still unclear how deadly it is relative to the already detected strains of COVID.
Thompson said the guidance being shared on COVID mitigation is still the same as it was at the beginning of the pandemic: wear a mask, limit close contact and stay home if sick.
Vaccines have become widely available since April, and boosters have been approved for people who have already completed a full round of vaccination. More than 4.2 million vaccine doses have been administered in Iowa, and Thompson said there are still people electing to begin their first round of vaccination.
“One thing we do know about the vaccines is they don’t always help protect us from getting the virus, but they do help you from getting as sick,” Thompson said. “It helps keep you from getting hospitalized.”
Hospitalizations have been quickly increasing across the state, similar to what was seen in fall 2020. Thompson noted the colder weather and holiday season means more people gathering indoors, which could contribute to the spread especially in older people who have naturally weaker immune systems.
“When you’re in your 60s, you might be healthy, but your immune system isn’t as good as it was when you were in your 40s,” she said. “Also, if you have any kind of illness that weakens your immune system, that’s probably going to make it worse.”
The seasonal flu is also becoming prevalent once again this winter. The flu vaccine is available from local health care providers, and getting it is more important than ever, according to Thompson.
“You don’t need two illnesses at the same time,” she said. “Take it from the experts, and health care providers are the experts. We just need to hang in there tight, because the virus is still here.”
Contact Joe Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.