As omicron variant spreads, Utahns urged to get vaccine booster shots

Nov 30, 2021, 7:29 PM | Updated: 7:32 pm
covid utah...
Tanner Davies receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a NOMI/TestUtah vaccination site in Lindon on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE COUNTY — Doctors in Utah say they’re hoping to learn a lot about the newest variant of the COVID-19 virus in the next week to 10 days.  However, they don’t want Utahns to lose sight of the pandemic that’s already here.  Just looking at the genetic makeup of the omicron variant has doctors concerned. 

Intermountain Healthcare Infectious Disease Doctor Eddie Stenehjem says it has far more genetic mutations than other variants. And it could have very different characteristics than previous versions of the COVID-19 virus.

Omicron variant has more than 50 mutations

He said, “Omicron has over 50 mutations in it, and Delta had about nine.”

What will these new characteristics be?  Stenehjem says it’s far too soon to know.  Doctors don’t know if the illness will be more severe or less if someone is infected with omicron.  Stenehjem says the variant was just identified a week ago. However, researchers are working around the clock to learn everything they can.

Stenehjem says doctors always knew variants of the virus would emerge. And he isn’t surprised to see one coming from South Africa. 

“They, initially, had very low cases and now they’re seeing a significant spike in cases, but they’re also very under-vaccinated,” he said.

Immunity from previous infections may not be enough

According to Stenehjem, variants will always be able to form in under-vaccinated areas. Which is why he believes people should get their booster shots, or start the vaccination process if they haven’t already.  He says it doesn’t appear people will be able to rely on the antibodies they developed if they were already sickened with COVID-19.

He said, “There are some hints coming out of South Africa to suggest that prior infection with either beta or delta variants, in South Africa, does not offer significant protection against an infection with omicron.”

(Intermountain COVID Patient Graphic, provided by Intermountain Healthcare.)

However, Stenehjem says people shouldn’t be focusing on if or when the omicron variant reaches Utah.  New versions of the COVID-19 vaccine that target the omicron variant may be available in roughly 100 days.  He believes people in the Beehive State should be more concerned with slowing the spread of the delta variant.

“Right now, in Utah, omicron is not affecting us.  Delta is affecting us,” he said.

Officials with the Utah Department of Health report 1,195 new cases of COVID-19 since Monday, including 253 among school-aged children.  Stenehjem says ICU beds in hospitals across the state are over capacity, and 87 percent of all ICU patients are unvaccinated.

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As omicron variant spreads, Utahns urged to get vaccine booster shots