COVID-19: What is the omicron variant? Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert weighs in

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The omicron variant of COVID-19 was first detected in November in South Africa, and has since spread to more than 10 countries, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and now Canada.

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There have been no cases detected in the U.S. yet, but experts expect it’s only a matter of time. Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious disease consultant for the Mayo Clinic, said this is expected.

“That’s a very common thing. It happens all the time. We’ve already had many mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Virk said. “This is brand-new. This is being studied by scientists all over the world.”

She said it’s a reminder that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and people should mask up in crowded areas, wash hands, practice social distancing, and get vaccinated if you haven’t already.

Action News Jax’s Robert Grant asked about the effectiveness of the vaccine or monoclonal antibody treatment on this new strain of the virus.

“They may be lower vaccine effectiveness, but they’ll still be effective. So it’s better to get protected through the vaccine than to get the disease — because it’s a nasty disease,” she said.

Virk added that many doctors have seen a low turnout for booster shots. According to the Florida Department of Health, 10,068,484 people are vaccinated. Only about 22% of them have received their booster.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved Pfizer and Moderna booster shots for all adults over 18 years old, at least six months after the first vaccine. People who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster at least two months after.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. We still have lots of infections going around.”

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While PCR tests cannot detect the omicron variant, additional testing at state labs can specify the variant, which is then reported to the CDC. According to Virk, about 99% of cases right now are still the delta variant.