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Here’s what Utah health officials know, so far, about the omicron variant of COVID-19

Early signs are hopeful that vaccines will provide protection.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah health experts say that early signs show existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the new omicron variant of the coronavirus — though the degree of protection is still uncertain.

The Thanksgiving weekend brought news of a new variant of the novel coronavirus, and a new Greek letter to learn: Omicron.

The World Health Organization announced Friday that the omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, is a “variant of concern.” This prompted the United States and some European countries to limit travel from southern African countries, in hopes of slowing down the new variant’s spread.

Here’s what Utah health officials and others know, and don’t yet know, about the omicron variant:

Has the omicron variant been detected yet in Utah?

No cases have been confirmed in the United States, Utah Department of Health spokeswoman Charla Haley said Monday. But, as President Joe Biden said in a speech Monday, “sooner or later, we are going to see new cases of this new variant here in the United States and we’re going to have to face this new threat just as we have faced the ones that came before it.”

Is omicron more transmissible than the delta variant, or less?

Experts don’t know yet, Haley said.

Is omicron causing milder or more severe symptoms than delta?

Again, it’s too soon to tell. Haley said. Virologist Barry Schoub, who advises the South African government on COVID-19 policy, told Britain’s Sky News on Sunday that in his country, “so far, the cases have been pretty mild,” though he added, “it is early days. We still have to wait and see.”

Is omicron more resistant or less resistant to the vaccine than delta?

Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said that “all signs indicate that the existing vaccines will provide some protection against omicron — the degree of protection is currently uncertain, but the vaccines are proven to prevent significant illness and death from all known variants to date.”

Will the vaccine still protect people from the more severe outcomes of omicron?

The omicron variant has been identified in vaccinated people, Haley said. An AP report from Johannesburg, South Africa, noted that the variant appears to be spreading most quickly among unvaccinated people.

What should people do if they’re concerned about the spread of the omicron variant?

The same as they have done for delta and the other versions of the coronavirus. “Getting vaccinated, or your booster dose if eligible, is still the most important thing you can do to protect yourself and others,” Haley said.

Rupp noted another benefit to getting the shot: “Widespread vaccination can also help prevent COVID from further evolving into additional variants of concern.”

Also, Rupp said, the same procedures that have been recommended through the pandemic — masking when in public, physical distancing — still apply. And, if you feel ill, stay isolated at home and get tested, Rupp said.

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