Utah doctors prepare to face the omicron variant

Nov 29, 2021, 5:02 PM | Updated: Nov 30, 2021, 8:00 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Leading doctors in Utah only learned about the omicron variant last week so they’re still waiting for answers to critical questions and reminding the public of the tools that already work. Meantime, Utah’s hospitals have already been operating at capacity for three months.

The president Monday morning said the omicron variant is cause for concern, but not cause for panic. A couple of Utah infectious disease doctors agree. Doctors are saying to focus on what we know works, until there is more information on this variant.

“We knew this was going to come,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare.

The omicron variant is spreading fast in South Africa, and has been detected in more than a dozen other countries, including Canada. But they do not have a lot of data on the variant.

“We shouldn’t panic. We knew this was coming,” Stenehjem said. “We have the science we have the technology to answer these questions, and I suspect in the next 10 days to two weeks we will have much more information on what does this really mean to us here in the US, in particular here in Utah.”

They hope to find out how transmissible the variant is, how the COVID-19 vaccines work against it, and whether treatments such as monoclonal antibodies will combat the omicron variant.

“It’s probably a given that it will soon appear here, if it hasn’t already started circulating in the United States,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at University of Utah Health.

The variant has a large number of mutations on the the spike protein, he said, which allows the virus to infect cells. Any changes in that protein can help or hurt the virus’s ability to infect, transmit, and evade the vaccines.

“So, changes in the spike protein could lead to decreased efficacy in the vaccine,” said Swaminathan.

But, Utah hospitals remain filled with COVID-19 patients, and doctors don’t yet know how Thanksgiving gatherings will impact that.

“Our hospitals are still at max capacities in the ICUs and have been since mid-August,” Stenehjem said.

To mitigate spread they agree with the CDC: increase vaccinations and boosters for all eligible. The physicians point out that masking, hand-washing, social distancing, and reducing our number of contacts will work against this variant when it arrives.

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Utah doctors prepare to face the omicron variant