News about a new COVID-19 variant should encourage more people to continue to practice health precautions and consider getting vaccinated or a booster shot, officials at the largest hospital in Central Missouri said Monday.
On Friday, the World Health Organization announced a new strain of coronavirus as a "variant of concern." The strain, dubbed omicron, was reported to the agency by South Africa last week. Health officials are concerned about the potential for the variant to cause COVID-19 to increase in transmission and or in severity.
To date, the U.S. has been dealing with the delta variant, which has caused more severe illness in unvaccinated people compared to other variants.
During an online news conference Monday, Dr. Laura Morris, the COVID-19 vaccination chairwoman at MU Heath Care, said this is the fifth variant of concern during the pandemic. She noted not every variant has been as problematic as initially thought.
"Any COVID patients I'm dealing with now I assume have the delta variant," Morris said. "The omicron variant cases we've seen are in South Africa and the Netherlands, and we haven't had enough time to see what new symptoms this variant produces."
Morris said health officials were able to detect the presence of omicron much faster than preceding variants.
"We learned from delta how quickly this spreads and that we need to ramp up surveillance," she said.
Morris said more time is needed to determine the effectiveness of existing vaccines on the omicron variant.
"With delta, we saw an increase in breakthrough cases, but no increases in deaths of vaccinated persons," she said. "So the vaccines protected them from serious illnesses."
She added: "We continue to tell people that vaccination is still the best way to prevent COVID, and adults in the U.S. are eligible to get booster shots now."
Improved communication among health agencies in the state will be critical when the omicron variant is detected in Missouri. But until that time, she said, the Columbia hospital will continue its current COVID-19 protocols and procedures.
"We've seen an uptick in the past few weeks in positive COVID cases across Missouri, so people need to continue to take precautions like masking and getting vaccinated.
"As medical providers, we're still masking and vaccinating," she said. "There's nothing about this new variant showing we should do anything differently."