Researchers identify omicron variant of COVID-19 from patient at UF Health in Gainesville

UF Health Shands Hospital Unit 82 nurses, from left, Sarah Graciani and Emily Carter care for a patient with COVID-19.
·3 min read

The first COVID-19 omicron variant case detected by the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute was found this week from a UF Health patient, according to UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez.

It is not clear if it is the first confirmed omicron case in Alachua County as the Florida Department of Health and the local health department could not be reached immediately to confirm.

Dr. Glenn Morris, head of the UF EPI, said he was not comfortable sharing whether the patient was an Alachua County resident because of privacy reasons. However UF Health spokesman Ken Garcia confirmed the patient had been treated as an outpatient in Gainesville.

Morris said the case was the first omicron isolate found by his team, which routinely sequences COVID-19 samples from Shands hospital and other parts of UF Health, including patients from neighboring counties.

According to Dr. Nicole Iovine, an infectious disease specialist with UF Health, finding one omicron case in Gainesville means that there are many more in the community.

Some may be infected and not sick enough to seek medical help, while others may not have been sequenced and passed through medical centers undetected.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "Certainly there are other cases of omicron floating around in Alachua County ... There's no doubt in my mind."

Because the omicron variant is so much more transmissible, she said, it is likely to quickly replace the delta variant as the dominant COVID-19 strain in the area.

What's known so far about omicron, Iovine said, is that it has what is called "vaccine escape." Antibodies people have acquired from COVID-19 vaccines or infections have a harder time recognizing the variant with its many mutations.

Recent work from the EPI places omicron's possible COVID-19 surge with a projected peak in February of more than 150,000 infections a day in Florida, well above any previous peak since the pandemic began.

Read about it here: UF study projects COVID-19 omicron surge with record infections but perhaps not as deadly

And even if illness from omicron is less severe than delta and other strains, as some early research indicates, the doctor said a smaller percentage of more cases is still a huge number.

The only people with significant protection against omicron are those who have received a booster shot, Iovine said. Natural immunity and vaccine immunity wane over time, but the booster doesn't just increase the numbers of the antibodies people already have. It actually increases the diversity of the antibodies, she explained, allowing your immune system to recognize different things.

With the holidays approaching, COVID-19 cases rising and many Floridians either unvaccinated or immunocompromised, Iovine said it is a "perfect storm for a surge."

The doctor and expert urged getting the booster shot or starting the COVID-19 vaccine series. The best way to keep yourself and your loved ones safe over the next few weeks, she said, is to mask indoors or celebrate outdoors with ventilation.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: UF Health patient in Gainesville infected with COVID omicron variant

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