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    The COVID-19 pandemic continues on, as another new variant has been discovered: Omicron. Despite the increased attention around Omicron, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the Delta variant continues to be the main variant circulating in the United States. There are still many unknowns about Omicron- including how it spreads, the severity of symptoms it causes, and how well current treatments and vaccines work against it. So what do we know? Dr. Karen Geheb, Hospitalist at Pullman Regional Hospital, explains what we know so far.

    What is a variant?

    “Variants are the same virus at the core, but the cell programming has changed, or mutated, to produce a different set of proteins,” explains Dr. Geheb. “The longer a virus remains in an environment, the greater the mutations that occur. Mutations may make a virus more transmissible, and may increase illness; some variants will fade away and not be harmful or disruptive.”

    First Sign

    The World Health Organization (WHO) received the first report of this new variant, Omicron, on November 11, 2021. The first case was detected in the United States on December 1, 2021. From specimens collected 11/29/2021-12/21/2021 in the state of Washington, three cases of Omicron were diagnosed in three counties.

    As of December 8, 2021, the states of Washington, California, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Hawaii have reported at least one COVID-19 case caused by the Omicron variant.

    “Omicron is of concern due to increased transmissibility but there is not enough data yet to determine if it causes increased illness,” says Dr. Geheb.

    What can you do?

    Vaccination remains the most effective tool to limit the severity of symptoms, should you come into contact with the COVID-19 virus; receiving a COVID-19 booster shot will also help add a layer of protection. All individuals 18 years and older are currently eligible to receive a COVID-19 booster shot in the United States. In Whitman County, COVID-19 vaccine and boosters are readily available at clinics and pharmacies. Schedule your vaccine appointment. If you have questions about booster shots or your eligibility, speak to your primary care provider.

    “Vaccines will not necessarily prevent infection due to the emergence of mutations/variants, but with vaccination, our own cells are ‘primed’ and if the virus enters the cell, its replication is limited so it produces less illness, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Dr. Geheb explains. Booster shots are needed because effects of vaccines tend to wane over time. “Many vaccines such as tetanus, shingles, and pediatric vaccines require booster doses at some point. It’s expected that the COVID-19 vaccine will also require a booster,” assures Dr. Geheb.

    Dr. Geheb also recommends continuing to wear a face mask in public settings, practice proper hand hygiene frequently, maintaining physical distancing, and avoiding large gatherings where physical distancing cannot be maintained. Getting sick allows for mutations to persist. Dr. Geheb breaks it down: “the virus uses our own cells to replicate and release the virus, including variants, into the environment. This is why we are not protected from future infections.”

    According to the CDC, “current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant.” Scientists are continuing work to understand how the Omicron variant reacts with current vaccines and treatments, based on its genetic makeup.

    While there are still many unknowns about the Omicron variant, scientists continue to research and report on findings associated with the Omicron. As more information becomes available, we will continue to update and report out. You can also check credible healthcare information websites such as the WHO, CDC, and Washington State Department of Health for the latest updates, all sites that Dr. Geheb and other medical professionals trust.

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