Omicron COVID variant, UW Health urges vaccine

President Joe Biden on Monday, Nov. 29 called the new coronavirus variant a "cause for concern" but "not panic" as countries, including the United States, limit travel from several South African nations, including South Africa, which discovered the variant.

Health experts say vaccinations are key.

Right now in the U.S., there are about 80 million people ages 5 and up who are unvaccinated, and for those who have been vaccinated, getting the booster shot is the best protection you have from serious illness or death. 

Researchers are still working on figuring out if the current crop of vaccines is effective against the omicron variant, and it's not a matter of if but when the variant will be identified in the U.S.

As of last week, nearly 60% of the state's population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. As vaccination rates slow in the state, health experts urge if you haven't gotten vaccinated for COVID-19 to do so, and if you're eligible for a booster shot, to get that, as well.

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"We know vaccinated people can get (COVID-19), too, but vaccinated people are not getting severe disease or being hospitalized," said Dr. Gregory DeMuri, UW Heath. "We don’t know that yet with omicron, but we’re going to find that out very soon."

Last week, South Africa, one of the best countries in the world when it comes to epidemiology but with low vaccination numbers at about 24%, reported to the World Health Organization it had detected a coronavirus variant with a large number of mutations. The WHO said more testing is needed, but preliminary evidence suggests omicron presents an increased risk of re-infection as compared to other variants of concern like beta or delta.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," said President Biden.

On Monday, President Biden addressed the new variant and restrictions put on travel from South African countries. As other countries do the same, Biden says to buy time.



"Time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine," said Biden.

"I think the big question that we really need answered -- are infections more severe? We don’t know that yet, and that’s a really important thing to understand as the epidemiology and data comes out," said DeMuri.

As he waits for more information on omicron, DeMuri said there's no time to wait to get vaccinated or to get your booster.

"We could be in for another wave of infections coming through," said DeMuri.

Biden ruled out lockdowns in the U.S. but urged mask-wearing in indoor settings, recommendations long touted by health experts as they wait to see what the research shows about the omicron variant. Vaccine manufacturers are also watching and waiting to find out if the vaccines are not as effective. That could mean changes to account for the new variant, which could take several months.

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