Omicron COVID cases reported in Oneida County. What we know about the variant

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Oneida County has its first confirmed cases of the coronavirus omicron variant, according to Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr.

The county was informed about two omicron cases by the state health department.

Picente announced the cases during Monday’s daily COVID-19 update.

“Oneida County has confirmed with the New York State Health Department that we have two cases of COVID-19 that have tested positive for the Omicron variant,” Picente said in a statement.

“We are conducting a full investigation.”

The omicron cases come as the county has seen a surge in new COVID-19 cases, with case numbers rising. Hospitalizations also have been on the rise in Oneida County.

More: COVID cases continue to rise in Oneida County

What is omicron?

The World Health Organization designated the B.1.1.529 variant a “variant of concern” Nov. 26 and named it omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.

WHO uses the Greek alphabet as a variant classification system to simplify understanding and avoid stigmatizing countries where they’re first identified.

Omicron, which can be pronounced both ä-mə-ˌkrän or ō-ˈmī-(ˌ)krän, according to Merriam-Webster, was first identified in South Africa on Nov. 24. The U.S. began restricting travel from South Africa and several other countries last week, but Fauci said the Biden administration is considering lifting those bans.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to lift that ban in a quite reasonable period of time,” he said. “We all feel very badly about the hardship that has been put on not only on South Africa but the other African countries.”

What are the symptoms?

WHO says there’s no evidence to suggest that symptoms linked to omicron are different from those caused by other variants.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, was one of the first doctors in South Africa to detect the new variant.

She told Reuters symptoms of the omicron variant were "very mild" and could be treated at home. These infections were first reported in university students who were younger and tended to have milder disease.

But like all coronavirus variants, WHO said, omicron may be capable of causing severe disease or death, particularly among vulnerable populations.

Symptoms of COVID-19 caused by any known coronavirus variant can include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, a loss of taste or smell, sore and congestion or runny nose.

How dangerous is omicron?

Although early indications suggest the omicron variant may be less dangerous than the highly infectious delta variant, scientists say there is still much to learn.

Early reports from South Africa seem to indicate the omicron variant of coronavirus is much more contagious than previous variants while causing milder disease, though experts there warn definitive data won't be available for weeks.

How serious is omicron? It will take weeks to understand new coronavirus variant, experts say.

The California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health have confirmed a recent case of COVID-19 caused by omicron.
The California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health have confirmed a recent case of COVID-19 caused by omicron.

Where is the variant?

A person in California became the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the omicron variant.

At least 16 states have reported omicron cases: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

WHO said the latest strain has been detected in at least 38 countries, including South Africa, Portugal, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.

Should I be concerned about it?

In a media briefing last week, President Joe Biden said omicron is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

It’s not clear whether infection with omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, WHO said.

It’s also unclear how well the virus evades immunity from previous infection or COVID-19 vaccines to cause a breakthrough infection.

But even with so little information, health experts say people should be watchful.

“Americans should take this variant seriously," Swann said. "Even if this one turns out to be not as bad as we fear, there will be another one that will.”

Are there any deaths linked to omicron?

As of Monday, no deaths were reported associated with the new variant.

How quickly could it spread?

Scientists say more data is needed to determine severity of illness, but real-world evidence suggests omicron may be highly transmissible.

Dutch health authorities said they detected more than 60 COVID-19 cases among 624 passengers who flew on two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam’s airport, Reuters reported, despite requiring a negative test or proof of vaccination.

“The filtration on planes are better, there tend to be mask requirements and most airline companies are requiring a negative test, so I would not have expected this level of positivity so quickly on that flight,” Swann said. “I found it a bit worrisome.”

Do the COVID-19 vaccines protect against omicron?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told Biden he believes “existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID,” reiterating that booster shots on top of full vaccination will provide stronger protection.

However, other scientists say it will likely take weeks to sort out if the new variant is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.

COVID-19 vaccine developers with authorized shots in the U.S. – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – have all pledged to reformulate their shots to protect against omicron “if needed,” which may include an omicron-specific booster.

“It is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves,” Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a statement. “The mutations in the omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”

What precautions should I take?

Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron compared to other variants of concern, according to WHO, but more information is needed.

Biden urged the public to get fully vaccinated, and if eligible, to get a COVID-19 booster as soon as possible. Waning immunity in people who received their first shots more than six months ago may put them at risk of breakthrough infection.

The CDC updated its guidance, recommending that all adults 18 and older should get a booster shot either six months after their initial Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine series or two months after their initial J&J vaccine.

“If you are 18 years and over and got fully vaccinated before June 1, go get the booster shot today,” Biden said. “They’re free and available in 80,000 locations coast to coast. Do not wait.”

Anyone who gathered with non-household members over the holiday should consider getting tested for COVID-19, Swann said. She also urged anyone who has traveled away from their community to get tested.

“That would allow us to get a handle on things,” she said. “It will continue to spread but slow it down to give us time to know what this is and what does it mean, and be prepared for it.”

Americans should also consider wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status, especially around people with compromised immune systems who are more at risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

Biden also pushed parents to get their children vaccinated now that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for kids 5 to 11.

“Most of our children across America are not fully vaccinated, yet,” Swann said. “People who are not fully protected with the full recommended dosage of vaccines should take extra care in gathering with anyone outside their household.”

Information from USA Today was used in this article.

Ed Harris is the Oneida County reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Ed Harris at EHarris1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Observer-Dispatch: Omicron COVID cases reported in Oneida County. What we know

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