Local doctors tracking new omicron COVID-19 variant

Coronavirus

SAN DIEGO – The new omicron COVID-19 variant has yet to be detected in California. But state and local health officials are monitoring the variant after scientists in South Africa recently alerted the World Health Organization about it.

At the White House Monday, President Joe Biden called the variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” while urging Americans to get vaccinated and encouraging that masks be worn indoors to slow the spread. The U.S. has begun restricting travel to at least eight African countries due to the variant and the CDC strengthened its recommendation for Americans ages 18 older to get booster shots over its emergence.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state is “closely” monitoring the variant.

“I would say people always say they want the facts and not fear,” Sharp HealthCare Family Medicine Dr. Abisola Olulade said, “but the fact is that a healthy fear of COVID is a good thing.”

The omicron variant has now been detected in Canada after first being identified in South Africa and then in Europe. Canadian health officials said Sunday that two cases of the variant were detected in Ontario.

Dr. Phil Febbo, chief medical officer at Illumina, applauded South Africa for sounding the alarm early on the variant.

“South Africa did an amazing job alerting all of us to the emergence of Omicron,” Febbo said. “They gave us the best opportunity of preventing the global spread of this variant. The benefit of that is now we know about it we can look for it.”

Febbo works with local diagnostic labs, like Helix, that look for new variants through sequence testing. He said knowing what type of disease we’re dealing with and where is a great tool in the toolbox when it comes to stopping the spread. 

“In the United States, we’re sequencing between 5-10% of our positives now and we can look for omicron,” he said. “We haven’t found it yet. Last year this time, we weren’t sequencing barely any of the cases so even if we had heard about it when we heard about alpha, we were scrambling. Now we’re in much better position.”

In San Diego County, public health officials Monday reported 401 new COVID-19 infections and 10 deaths.

The number of COVID patients hospitalized in San Diego County increased slightly, rising from 270 to 272, according to the latest state figures. Of those patients, 83 were in intensive care, unchanged from Sunday.

The number of residents who have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine is now nearly 2.64 million — or 84% of residents age 5 and older, according to the county.

More than 2.35 million people, or 74.7% of residents 5 and older, are fully vaccinated. Roughly 414,814 San Diego County residents 18 years of age or older have received a booster dose.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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