COVID-19: Officials urge caution after Omicron found in U.S.

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By Randi Pierce
Staff Writer

A new COVID variant -— the Omicron variant — was identified in South Africa last week, and the World Health Organization (WHO) quickly labeled the variant as one of concern.

Public health officials across the globe have been working to identify where the variant is already present, as well as key things about the variant, including its transmissibility, the severity of illness it causes, if it evades immunity derived either from infection or vaccination, and if it can outcompete the Delta variant in areas with significant transmission.

Omicron was first identified in the U.S. Wednesday, in California.

San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) Executive Director Liane Jollon noted that South Africa has a “very extensive” program in place to be able to find new variants and while they were the first to identify the new strain, it may have originated elsewhere.

There is suspicion, she noted, that it was circulating in southern Africa and some European countries for all of November.

She further explained that Omicron has a large number of mutations, including different combinations of mutations that have not been seen previously. Some of the mutations present with Omicron have been studied and associated with strains that were more transmissible.

While the level of protection immunity from vaccines and previous infection provides has yet to be determined, Jollon noted that the WHO clearly states that the vaccines currently available offer protection from serious illness and death.

“The first confirmed U.S. case in California confirms what public health officials suspected, that the Omicron variant would reach the U.S. and local communities,” she said. “It remains to be seen how it will compete with the Delta variant and our high levels of Delta transmission. In the face of unknowns with the Omicron variant, the community is advised to double down on proven precautions and layered protections such as masking, vaccination and boosters, testing, and avoiding large indoor gatherings.”

COVID treatment

Colorado recently made it easier for residents to access monoclonal antibody treatment by allowing those who are eligible to self-schedule through the state, and SJBPH is working with the state to increase access to the treatment locally.

Previously, the treatment was only available following referral by a medical provider.

Currently, Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC) is the only provider of monoclonal antibody treatments in Archuleta County, according to the state’s COVID-19 website.

“PSMC has been really doing the very best they can to offer monoclonals,” Jollon said, adding that SJBPH has “done our part” in terms of requesting a mobile unit for Archuleta County and connecting PSMC with state-sponsored resources to increase access.

SJBPH announced Monday that a mobile unit administering monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is located in La Plata County.

“CDPHE’s mobile unit will provide monoclonal antibody treatment to individuals who are eligible,” a SJBPH press release states. “You might be eligible if you have tested positive for COVID-19, your symptoms started within the last 10 days, you aren’t hospitalized or on oxygen due to COVID-19, and you are at risk of getting very sick without treatment. Eligibility for treatment is for people 12 years of age or older. Monoclonal antibody treatments have been shown to be effective at preventing hospitalizations among individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and are considered high risk for severe illness.”

SJBPH further explains eligible individuals can sign up for treatment at the mobile unit by self-scheduling on an online platform provided by CDPHE. No referral is required. 

As part of the appointment-making process, patients will complete a screening form to determine eligibility for the therapy. At the time of the appointment, a health care provider from the mobile unit will review the screening form and must provide authorization for a patient to receive this therapy. 

According to the CDPHE, the on-site review of the screening questions and authorization to receive treatment will occur in just minutes in most cases.

More information about monoclonal antibody treatments, eligibility and the CDPHE’s mobile units is available at: https://covid19.colorado.gov/for-coloradans/covid-19-treatments. The CDPHE is also providing the public with a flyer of instructions to sign up for an appointment at the mobile unit. 

Questions about the mobile unit or monoclonal antibody treatments should be directed to the CDPHE by calling 1-877-COVAXCO (1-877-268-2926).

“This is something that’s worth driving for,” Jollon said, referring to those who are eligible for the treatment but who may have to drive to La Plata County to access it.

She indicated that hospitals continue to be “very overburdened” in Colorado.

SJBPH’s Chandler Griffin added that while monoclonal antibody treatment is not a substitute for being fully vaccinated, it can potentially be a lifesaving treatment.

The state’s mobile unit will be located at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, located at 2500 Main Ave. in Durango, until Dec. 11, with the site operating from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day except Sunday.

“Monoclonal antibody treatments may also be available through existing health care providers in the region. The public is directed to first consult with their physician for a referral if seeking monoclonal antibody treatment from a local hospital,” SJBPH’s press release notes.

Local numbers

According to SJBPH, Archuleta County’s seven-day cumulative incidence rate was 306.7 cases per 100,000 people Wednesday — down from 688.2 on Nov. 23 — though Griffin cautioned it’s hard to confirm a trend after a holiday and Jollon noted that pressure on local hospitals has not yet been relieved.

As of Tuesday, SJBPH listed 1,892 total cases of confirmed COVID-19 among permanent Archuleta County residents since late March 2020, up from 1,812 on Nov. 23. 

The agency showed Archuleta County was at 18 percent positivity Wednesday.

There continue to be four outbreaks identified in Archuleta County. As of Nov. 28, the case counts were as follows:

• Pagosa Springs Elementary School: 18 cases — 17 students and one staff member. The first case was identified on Oct. 20.

• Pagosa Springs Middle School: 10 cases — nine students and one staff member. The first case was confirmed on Nov. 2. 

• Pagosa Springs High School: five cases — three staff members and two students. The first case was confirmed on Oct. 29. 

• Pine Ridge Extended Care Center: six cases — five staff members and one resident. The first case was identified on Nov. 11. 

An outbreak is identified as five cases associated with a single facility in a 14-day period, or two cases in a 14-day period in congregate settings, such as long-term care facilities.

Vaccines, boosters
available

All three authorized vaccine types continue to be available. Youth ages 5 through 17 are only eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. 

Parents and guardians are required to provide consent for minors to be vaccinated. The vaccine is free, and no ID is required. Although advance registration is preferred, walk-ins are also welcome at clinics. 

Booster doses of all three vaccine types also continue to be available. Those 18 and older who were previously vaccinated are eligible for a booster dose two months after receiving the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and six months after receiving an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer and Moderna).

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccines, current eligibility, details on vaccine clinics and providers, or to make an appointment, visit: https://sjbpublichealth.org/covid-19-vaccine/.

randi@pagosasun.com