The new omicron variant of COVID-19 is raising concerns just as Oregon is seeing strong evidence of recovering from the deadly delta spike that swept the state last summer.
New infections have fallen below 100 per 100,000 people statewide, while the positive test rate dropped under 6%, according to the latest County COVID-19 Community Transmission report, released Monday. The new lows were part of a four-week trend of falling numbers.
The good news was tempered by growing concerns of the new omicron variant reported late last week by the World Health Organization. No cases have been found in Oregon, though health officials said experience during the now nearly two-year-old pandemic shows the situation could swiftly change.
“Omicron has not yet been detected in the United States, but we expect it will be in the coming days due to its reported high transmissibility,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist. “Oregon has one of the most robust variant surveillance systems in the United States.”
Sidelinger urged people who had not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible and for those eligible for a booster shot — in Oregon, anyone 18 and older — to schedule an appointment.
“The vaccines have remained highly effective against other variants, and we expect the same to be true with omicron,” he said. “We should have early answers in the coming weeks.”
Originally found in southern Africa, cases have since been reported over the weekend in Canada, Europe, Australia and Hong Kong.
Epidemiologists studying the variant have said its structure has about 50 mutations that have not been seen before. Many are in the spike protein that the virus uses to hook itself more firmly onto healthy cells. That would likely make it more contagious than previous versions of COVID-19.
But other variants have failed to spread in Oregon and other regions of the United States because the delta variant had “crowded out” other variants from reaching unvaccinated people first.
Oregon officials said it was too early to gauge whether having nearly 80% of state residents over 18 vaccinated, combined with those who have been exposed to the delta variant, will be enough to block omicron from spreading across the state. An Oregon Health & Science University forecast, due Thursday, may include some projections.
After being surprised by the rapid spread of the delta variant, several countries are taking rapid steps to institute travel bans to slow the spread of omicron. The efforts range from Britain barring visitors from some African nations where the omicron variant was first reported to Israel freezing all foreign visits.
President Joe Biden said Monday the omicron variant was reason for concern, but not panic.
“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” Biden said in an address from the White House. He plans on visiting the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday for a further update.
Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”
Scientists said it could take weeks to know the spread of the omicron variant in the United States. Tests by the World Health Organization will also require about two weeks to be able to say with some certainty whether the new variant poses an increased danger to vaccinated people. The main impact will fall again on those who remain unvaccinated. Omicron’s structure makes it a “supercharged” spreader in unprotected populations.
According to the state’s community transmission report, Deschutes County was the only large county in Oregon with a per capita new-case rate over 200, and that was just barely, at 201 per 100,000. Though high compared to other parts of the state, the county’s mark was a big drop from 288.3 cases per 100,000 in the previous report released Nov. 22.
A number of larger counties showed very low numbers that drove the overall state average lower. Multnomah County, which includes Portland, reported 68 cases per 100,000. The state’s second most populous county, Washington, reported 77. Lane County, home of the University of Oregon in Eugene, had 80. Benton County, home of Corvallis and the main campus of Oregon State University, had 50.7.
The county risk levels were used until June to decide what level of restrictions to activities and gatherings would be placed on counties due to their measurements of infection and likely continued contagion. A large county above 200 cases per 100,000 would have once been placed in the “extreme” risk level, the most restrictive of four tiers.
Gov. Kate Brown and OHA phased out the risk-level system over the spring and ended the ratings completely in late June when the state closed in on a 70% vaccination rate. When the delta variant sent risk levels to new record highs, the state did not reinstate the restrictions, saying it was up to local authorities to make decisions.