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As Maryland and the rest of the nation still work to stave off the delta variant of the coronavirus, a newer, possibly more infectious variant is spreading from southern Africa, prompting travel restrictions and concern.
But scientists and officials in Maryland say residents here may have a leg up on the latest threat, known as omicron.
More than three-quarters of Marylanders have been at least partially vaccinated, above the national average of about 69%. Booster shots are rising. Many still wear a mask in indoor public spaces and keep their distance. And the state lab and others never stopped watching for mutated viruses and signals that new measures may be warranted.
“Our state continues to have one of the most robust testing surveillance systems in the country to identify and track variants,” Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday in a statement. “Maryland has led throughout the pandemic by listening to the experts and by following the science, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.”
Hogan has been averse to closing businesses and reinstituting mandates, but public health experts say the state’s messaging about vaccines and boosters is right for the times.
The variant first reported by South Africa last week already has been found in several other countries, including Canada. And no matter the travel restrictions imposed by several countries, including the United States, experts suspect the variant is present here already and will be detected soon.
During a Monday news conference, President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern, but not a cause for panic. He said he does not anticipate new lockdowns or other extreme measures primarily because most Americans ages 5 and up can be vaccinated and adults can get booster shots that will sustain protection, even if omicron blunts their effectiveness.
Biden said the country is “in a much better place” than this time last year with more than 74% of those eligible for vaccination ages 5 and older with at least one shot.
The Biden administration expects to release a more detailed federal plan later this week for fighting COVID-19 this winter.
“Not with shutdowns or lockdowns,” he emphasized, “but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”
Scientists, in the meantime, will try to understand whether omicron causes more, or more severe, disease and just how much, if any, vaccine effectiveness is lost. The makers of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine said Monday that they would begin work to adjust their vaccine in case it’s needed.
Even before news of the omicron variant, cases of COVID-19 in Maryland and much of the country already had begun ticking up again, intensifying the need to increase vaccine uptake.
More than 760 cases were added to the state’s tally Monday, and the number of hospital beds in use also is rising. The positivity rate, a measure of how well the state is capturing virus transmission, rose Monday to 4.76%. That’s getting closer to the World Health Organization 5% threshold at which spread is not considered contained.
Marylanders, however, have a higher overall vaccination rate than most states, and roughly 968,000 people, about one-sixth of the population, have gotten booster shots.
That will help protect people here, said Dr. Greg Schrank, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and a professor in the university’s school of medicine.
“We need a couple weeks to really make a determination about how the vaccines hold up against the virus, how transmissible the variant is and how severe the disease will be,” he said.
“But we aren’t going back to January 2020,” he said. “If indeed this variant circulates more predominantly, this is not going back to square one. We have a highly effective vaccine and we have high antibody levels after vaccination and we have created a long-lasting memory response that means we’re also not totally depending on antibodies.”
Schrank said pockets of Maryland, a big part of the United States and much of the rest of the world need to increase vaccination rates to stop variants from developing in the first place. And better messaging.
South Africa has shown really fast transmission of the variant, but it may not be an apples-to-apples comparison to elsewhere. It has vaccine supply but only about 25% of the population is inoculated. It also has a high percentage of people living with HIV, which weakens the immune system and allows viruses to thrive and mutate into variants that ultimately may nor may not be more dangerous.
Schrank said the world, however, is benefiting from South Africa’s strong surveillance system that has given an early warning about the variant so officials can prepare and push for further vaccination.
Hogan said in a statement that experts are keeping him up to date on the variant, but the Republican governor announced no new measures beyond ongoing efforts to push for vaccinations, boosters and testing.
Experts say the nose swab COVID tests normally done in a lab, known as PCR tests, can effectively identify an infection, and specifically the omicron variant. Schrank said how well rapid tests do in identifying omicron will have to be analyzed.
In the meantime, Hogan said he was briefed Monday by the state’s COVID-19 Response Team about the variant.
“We are closely monitoring the situation, and we will provide further public health updates to Marylanders as more information becomes available,” he said.
“While there is still much unknown about the omicron variant and how it will spread, the most important thing Marylanders can do right now is to get vaccinated or get a booster shot,” Hogan said. “It is the best way to maintain your immunity and protect yourself and your family from severe illness. All Marylanders age 18 and older are eligible for boosters, and we continue to have the supply and the capacity to provide a vaccine to anyone who wants one.”
The state’s lab continues to analyze the genetic makeup of samples from residents who test positive for the virus to understand the strains infecting people here. Most infections result from the delta variant, considered more transmissible than earlier variants of the coronavirus.
The state is sequencing about 28% of all positive samples a week at the state lab, as well as university and private labs, according to state health data.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sought nationwide data to understand circulating strains and hasn’t yet found the omicron variant.
“CDC is continuously monitoring variants and the U.S. variant surveillance system has reliably detected new variants in this country,” the agency said in a statement Friday. “We expect omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the U.S.”
Identifying its existence here will be one step, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association and a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health.
But that doesn’t mean the variant will be more dangerous. It was labeled by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” because it caused such a huge spike in cases, though that was specific to South Africa.
Omicron also has an unusually high number of mutations. But some can make a virus more or less transmissible or cause more or less severe disease. Or they could have no effect.
“Limiting flights from other countries will only slow this down, not stop it, but we’ll have time,” Benjamin said, allowing for study.
Maybe another booster will be necessary, but that would not indicate a failure of the vaccines, he said. Many vaccines require more than one dose and boosters at different intervals, much like the annual flu shot.
The CDC said Monday that every adult should get a booster six months after a Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after a Johnson & Johnson vaccination to guard against the new variant.
“If the governor and president are calling for vaccinations and boosters now, that’s the right message,” Benjamin said. “Viruses mutate; this is what they do. If we’re serious about stopping it, we have to get everyone vaccinated.”