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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Little Known About Omicron Variant, State Health Officials Say

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

West Virginia officials addressed the COVID-19 strain, omicron, for the first time since international news outlets reported the emergence of the latest variant of concern.

Cases have been detected in Europe and Africa, but not yet in the U.S.

Omicron looks a lot different than the original strain that circulated the globe. Scientists say it has about 50 mutations, twice that of the delta variant. In theory, these mutations could help the virus evade people’s immunity gained from the vaccine or previous infections, said state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh.

“Whether this variant turns out to be one that outcompetes the Delta variant and becomes the most common variant in the United States or in West Virginia, we don't know yet,” Marsh said. “But what we do know is that COVID remains very active.

The company that produces monoclonal antibody treatments also believes its medicine will have reduced efficacy against omicron.

International and federal health agencies, along with vaccine manufacturers, are racing to find out more about the variant.

State officials say, for now, vaccines and boosters are the best way to prepare for omicron, if or when it reaches the Mountain State.

“[Vaccines are] a bridge to buy a little bit of time to where in that time we're protected at a pretty dadgum high level,” Gov. Jim Justice said.

While no cases of omicron have yet been detected in the U.S., West Virginia's struggle with COVID-19 wages on. The state still hasn’t recovered from the delta surge. COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked in late September at about 1,000. That number has dropped since then, but has stalled at about 500 current admissions. Hospitalizations rose slightly over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. About 76 percent of patients hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Retired Maj. Gen. Jim Hoyer said 95 percent of those patients are 50 years old and above. He said they’re more likely to wind up in the ICU and on ventilators now than earlier in the pandemic.

“West Virginians, particularly over the age of 50, we have got to get booster doses, we have got to get booster doses quickly,” Hoyer said.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.

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