By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — As confirmed cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 begin to pop up across the country, Kansas health officials and hospitals are preparing for the variant’s arrival in the state.
On Friday, health officials confirmed six cases of the omicron variant in southeastern Nebraska, according to a media release from state officials.
On Wednesday, the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health confirmed a recent COVID-19 case caused by omicron in a resident who had just returned from South Africa, where the variant was first identified. The first confirmed case was followed on Thursday with reports that the variant had been identified in COVID cases in Minnesota and Colorado.
With the arrival of omicron in the U.S., concerns about the efficacy of vaccines and treatment options, like monoclonal antibodies, against the variant have arisen. Matt Shoemaker, an infectious disease expert with the University of Kansas Health System, said omicron is still largely an unknown.
“I think we’ll have to kind of see how these patterns play out,” Shoemaker said during a briefing on Tuesday. “We don’t know about the severity of illness, just like we don’t know about the effectiveness of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. So, at this point, unfortunately it’s watchful waiting.”
The World Health Organization has labeled omicron “a variant of concern” and it is thought to be more infectious than the delta variant. According to a KU Health System medical expert in reporting from the Kansas City Star, there is a small chance the omicron variant is already in the Kansas City area and, if not, will arrive in the coming weeks.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is already on the lookout for the omicron variant, said spokesman Matthew Lara. The department routinely works with lab partners to obtain positive COVID-19 samples for additional genomic sequencing tests to identify variants.
Lara said omicron is different from delta because it has what is known as an “s-gene dropout.”
“All positive samples will be run a second time using this test to look for s-gene dropout,” Lara said. “All samples that are missing the s-gene on the second test will then be prioritized for genomic sequencing to determine if it is the omicron variant.”
In the meantime, Kansas hospitals are still focusing on balancing everyday health emergencies with caring for patients with the delta variant, which has packed hospitals, said Cindy Samuelson, spokesperson for the Kansas Hospital Association. KDHE reported Wednesday the state has had 4,477 new cases, 19 new deaths and 133 new hospitalizations since Monday.
Samuelson said hospital officials are urging Kansans to take steps to keep themselves healthy and reduce the burden on health care staff.
“Right now, we’re continuing to really urge community members to get vaccinated. If they are vaccinated and they can get a booster then they should do that,” Samuelson said, adding that, “washing your hands, wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance are also essentially important during this time.”