Alaska health officials say the omicron variant is coming, but the risk is still unclear

a scientist as seen through lab shelves
Will George, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is part of a team of scientists led by professor Eric Bortz, studying Covid-19 variants. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

State health officials are asking Alaskans to get their COVID-19 vaccine booster and redouble other precautions over the coming weeks as they brace for the arrival of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus. 

“This is a new twist, I know we are tired of COVID, but it is not tired of us,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink posted on Twitter early Monday.

The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa last week, and scientists raised alarms over a high number of mutations it has compared to other variants. Since then, omicron has been detected in several other countries and has led to worldwide travel restrictions as scientists race to learn more. It’s not yet clear whether the variant is more infectious than other variants and whether it causes different or more severe symptoms. 

“There’s a lot more unknown in this space than what we do know,” Zink said during a call with reporters on Monday.

RELATED: Why some researchers think the omicron variant could be the most infectious one yet

As of Monday afternoon, no cases of the omicron variant had been reported in the U.S. 

In Alaska, state labs sequence about 300 COVID-19 cases each week to test for different variants. During the last report period that ended on Nov. 13, 100% of the tests sequenced were the highly-contagious delta variant. 

When omicron cases are detected, they’ll be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on a state-run database, a process that usually takes about two weeks, according to Jayme Parker, Alaska’s director of public health labs. 

Parker said there are currently no plans to increase capacity, since the state already sequences more than the CDC-recommended 5% of all positive tests. 

“What we’re hearing from CDC today is that 5% sequencing coverage is adequate in order to find viruses that are circulating at very low prevalence, even 0.01% prevalence,” she said. “So we feel that 300 per week is a good number to stick with in terms of capacity in order for us to find this.”

RELATED: Biden vaccine rule for health workers blocked in Alaska and 9 other states

Zink said that Alaskans’ reliance on air travel could put the state at risk for an early arrival of omicron. She said the Anchorage airport will start handing out rapid test kits to travelers in an effort to make testing easier.

“We encourage Alaskans to take precautions when they’re traveling,” Zink said. “We know that we’re coming up to the holiday seasons, and many people are traveling, so take some rapid tests with you.”

Early genetic evidence suggests omicron’s mutations may help it evade the immune system and reinfect people who previously had the coronavirus. So far it’s not clear how well vaccines will work against omicron, but officials say early evidence suggests that the vaccines will offer some level of protection. They’re encouraging Alaskans to get vaccinated if they haven’t and get a booster shot, which the CDC now recommends for all adults. 

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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