TAMPA, Fla. — When a new variant comes up, it can fall into a few different categories. Generally, it will be a variant of interest.
If it has certain criteria that make it more likely to cause problems, scientists label it a variant of concern.
“Delta variant was a variant of concern. It had mutations that increased its transmissibility and it also seemed to cause potentially some more severe disease,” said Dr. Jill Roberts, Associate Professor for USF College of Public Health.
The COVID-19 omicron variant has the same mutations delta has, plus more.
“Delta actually had eight mutations. When we come to this omicron, it has 32 mutations,” said Roberts.
So what does this mean? Health officials say omicron is going to likely be even more contagious than delta.
“Basically what we got to do now is we have to answer a lot of questions, right? Does it spread more than other strains? Probably because it has the same ability to have that was delta does more than likely because the mutations are the same. Is it going to cause more severe disease? We don’t know. Is it going to circumvent the vaccines? We don’t know,” said Roberts.
Researchers think they’re about a week and a half to two weeks out from having those answers, which is crucial now that the first U.S. case of the omicron variant was detected in California.
“We do know that the vaccines were protective against hospitalization and against death even with the delta strain. So there’s a good chance that’s going to be the same thing here. We do know that socially distancing can keep us protected from these strains and we do know that masks work,” said Roberts.
Experts believe there are more cases than just the one in California, they just haven’t been detected yet.
“More than likely it’s here. We’ve had flights coming in and out of all the places that have had some hot zones,” said Roberts.
“We’re going to quickly determine that that variant is already here and has been here,” she added.
Experts say what’s unique about Florida is how many visitors we get this time of year, so the chance is high they could bring cases with them.
“So what’s going to happen from this point on is some of the companies are already studying this and so what they’re going to be able to do is take antibodies from people who have infections or people who have been vaccinated, test it against these strains and then give an idea of whether or not they think the vaccine is going to be efficacious based on that lab work,” said Roberts.
Health officials are encouraging people to start washing their hands more frequently again, wear a mask, and avoid crowded indoor spaces.
“We got hit with delta really hard. That’s not the way we want to clear a variant of course. We don’t want to repeat that especially with flu on top of it. So we could really overwhelm our medicals really fast,” said Roberts.
“Most people are pretty optimistic based on what happened with delta that we’re going to get good protections from our vaccines. The possibility exists that that’s not true though, the companies are aware of this and they’re already looking at formulations against this particular variant,” she added.
That could take about 100 days from formulation to getting a new vaccine out there.
“Breakthrough cases can occur. So somebody who is vaccinated could in fact get infected, but we clear it really fast. So if I’m going to get infected with it and I’ve been vaccinated with it now three times, I may have the capacity to only spread that virus for one day versus an unvaccinated person that can have the capacity to spread that virus for seven to 10 days,” said Roberts.
Doctors say it’s possible our unvaccinated population may see an explosion of cases.
“The only way I can tell you if this is more transmissible is if it gets transmitted and we don’t want that to happen. And so, unfortunately, it will. So we’re going to just watch it and see how quickly this thing actually spreads from place to place and then we’ll get a pretty good idea of how high transmissibility is,” said Roberts.
In the meantime, experts say the best protection right now is the vaccine we currently have.
“I would say if you’re concerned, go ahead and get vaccinated. If you haven’t been boosted, go ahead and get vaccinated,” said Roberts.