Health officials urge caution and calm amid new variant

No cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 have yet been detected in Alaska, according to the Department of Health and Social Services, but the agency is monitoring the situation closely.

In a news conference Monday afternoon, Alaska’s health experts told reporters not a lot is known about the omicron variant first identified in South Africa, but international agencies are sharing information as rapidly as possible. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said experts were trying to reserve judgment until more information is available.

“Much more is not known about this virus than what is known,” Zink said.

The virus was first identified in South Africa, Zink said, which quickly responded to the new strain and began sharing its information internationally. Zink specifically thanked South African health agencies and several times mentioned an unprecedented amount of international collaboration among health experts.

Still, many world leaders acted quickly over the weekend to restrict travel from several southern African nations, according to the Associated Press. The omicron variant has been detected in Canada, AP reported, and at the White House President Joe Biden said the variant will inevitably come to the U.S.. The variant was a cause for concern, Biden said, but not for panic. Several countries — including the U.S. — have restricted travel from several southern African nations where omicron is believed to have originated, AP reported, but data on the variant is still sparse.

Alaska’s chief epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said South Africa has reported an increase in the number of cases, but not in the number of hospitalizations and deaths. Early data out of South Africa indicates the variant is very transmissible, Zink said, and seems to be infecting both vaccinated and previously infected people.

However, Zink said, much more is known about COVID-19 and scientists around the globe are sharing data. Most of the available testing techniques appear to be able to detect the variant according to Zink, and vaccines may provide additional resistance to the disease if not full immunity.

The World Health Organization called the variant a very high risk but national leaders urged calm and cooperation, AP reported. Several nations have imposed travel restrictions, despite opposition from the WHO, which according to AP has noted border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.

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Despite the global worry, AP reported, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether the omicron variant is more alarming than other versions. So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms, but they warn that it is still early. AP also reported most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

Zink said at the press conference people often draw conclusions from early data, and stressed the importance of waiting for additional research.

Internationally, the variant has provided further proof of what experts have long been saying, AP reported: that no continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.

“The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, one of the founders of the United Nations-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.

Biden and leaders of other developed nations urged people to get vaccinated or receive booster shots, even as the U.N. is urging sending those doses to poorer nations. Several nations have destroyed COVID-19 vaccinations due to lack of uptake by the community, according to AP.

City and Borough of Juneau Deputy City Manage Robert Barr said in an email Monday he wasn’t aware of any vaccines being destroyed, but noted the city did not have a vaccine supply problem. Bartlett Regional Hospital spokesperson KatieBausler told the Empire in an email the hospital has had to destroy vaccines as they come with an expiration date but did not say how many have been thrown out.

Zink and other health experts urged Alaskans to get vaccinated or boosted, but also urged people to take care of mental and physical health as well.

“Get outside, stay connected, and remember we are not powerless over this pandemic,” Zink said on social media. “This is a new twist, but we will learn and adapt, and we are stronger when we work together.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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