Washington state health authorities Saturday confirmed three cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus have been found in Thurston, Pierce and King counties. At least one of the three people infected had been vaccinated.
The patients, two men and one woman, range in age from 20 to 39, according to the state Department of Health.
“We knew that it was a matter of time before omicron was sequenced in our state and so we were anticipating this very news,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s health secretary, in a statement. “We strongly urge people to get vaccinated and get their boosters as soon as possible to maximize their level of protection from any variant.”
“We may be tired of this virus,” Shah added in a media briefing Saturday evening. “This virus is certainly not tired of us.”
Confirmation of the three cases came with lab results at midday Saturday from the UW Medicine Virology Lab, and patients are still being informed. Details about their conditions are unknown.
Shah said health officials do not yet have information on the severity of the disease in the three cases or whether any of the three were hospitalized.
However Public Health – Seattle & King County provided a little detail on the King County case: a woman in her 20s who tested positive for the coronavirus on Nov. 29.
Based on initial vaccination records, she had been vaccinated, and received a booster shot recently, likely after her exposure to omicron, the health agency said.
The vaccination status of the other two cases has not been established.
This early in the investigation, state health officials do not believe the three cases are related, but the travel history of the patients is unknown.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, called it “stressful news that no one wants to hear after the long difficult ordeal we’ve already had with COVID-19 … Now during the holiday season of all times COVID-19 has thrown another nasty curveball at us.”
Yet he cautioned against fearing the worst. “This ball has not reached the plate yet. And we don’t know if this scary-looking pitch will be a ball or strike,” Duchin said.
He went on to explain that because it’s so early in the emergence of the omicron variant, “right now we don’t have solid answers to our most important questions: How easily the virus spreads; whether it causes more or less severe illness; and how effective existing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are against omicron.”
“We do know enough to be concerned,” he added.
Summarizing the little that’s known so far about omicron, Duchin said preliminary data suggests this variant may spread even more readily than the delta variant and is more likely to reinfect people who’ve already had COVID.
On the other hand, he said, preliminary evidence also suggests there may be fewer severe cases.
Shah said, “Omicron is a reason for concern. However, it is not a reason to panic.”
“Not going back to square one”
New COVID cases in South Africa first alerted the world to omicron about 10 days ago, and the variant is quickly being discovered in a number of regions around the country. Shah said omicron cases have now been found in 38 countries.
Washington and Massachusetts announced their first cases Saturday, a day after New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Maryland reported their first confirmed cases. Missouri reported its first presumed case Friday. The variant also has been detected in New York, Nebraska, Minnesota, California, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah.
Duchin said the arrival of this variant doesn’t mean the community will be set back to the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are not going back to square one of the pandemic,” he said. “Omicron may pose new challenges that we will need to respond to, but compared to the early days of the pandemic, we know much more about COVID-19, and we’re better prepared for it.”
Washington state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist during the media briefing said, “I don’t think any of us feel that we’re going to stop the spread of this. It is clearly already here. But there are things we can do to limit the spread.”
Lindquist said it will take “weeks not days” for scientists studying the variant’s impact to gauge its severity and to understand the efficacy of the vaccines against it.
In the meantime, all the state health officials in the briefing urged people to get vaccinated and to get their booster doses when eligible, and to adopt the standard COVID-19 prevention measures: Wear good-quality masks indoors, improve indoor air ventilation, wash hands frequently and avoid crowded outdoor spaces.
Duchin said anyone who becomes ill with COVID symptoms should “isolate yourself and not expose additional people. Don’t go to work. Don’t go to school.”
Surge of cases now likely
He added that those who come down with symptoms should let public health authorities know with whom they have been in contact, so that those people can be informed to try to limit the spread of the virus.
Despite such precautions, Duchin said “it’s possible we may see a rapid and potentially large surge in cases, with most infections and most serious infections expected among the unvaccinated — although we know that even vaccinated people can be infected.”
A look at what is happening in South Africa shows “a potential for cases to come really fast,” Duchin said.
In a statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said, “We knew this day was inevitable, but the good news is we have more tools at our disposal to fight the virus than at any previous point in the pandemic, and we must continue to protect ourselves and our communities.”
At the media briefing, Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, a pediatrician and the state Department of Health’s chief science officer, was asked what parents of very young children should do now, given that their kids may be too young to wear a mask and are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
First, he noted that with current variants of the virus, for the vast majority of children, including those under age 2, COVID is not a severe illness.
He said there have been “maybe more than a dozen deaths in children and teens” out of the thousands of deaths in the state.
“We don’t have any indication that omicron is different from delta in this way,” Kwan-Gett said.
“I don’t think this is a situation where if you have a child under 2 that you need to go back to quarantine at home. I think you can still enjoy the holiday activities,” he said.
But he added that parents of a child under age 2 with a chronic health condition, “may want to take special care and perhaps talk to your primary care provider.”
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.