'It may be here already': Bay Area health experts address omicron variant ahead of holidays

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Bay Area health experts address omicron variant ahead of holidays
With a new variant detected ahead of the holidays, here's what experts are saying about omicron and gatherings.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- As of Monday, there were more than 150 cases of the new COVID-19 omicron variant. It has not yet been detected in the United States.

However, some local health officials say it is likely already here and it is only a matter of time before that is confirmed.

RELATED: 'Inevitably it will be here': Fauci says US must prepare for omicron COVID variant

During President Joe Biden's remarks on Monday, the President pointed to vaccines as one immediate form of protection.

"We have more tools today to fight the variant than we've ever had before. From vaccines to boosters to vaccines for children 5 years and older and much more," President Joe Biden said. "You have to get your vaccine, you have to get the shot, you have to get the booster. Sooner or later we're going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States."

Health experts acknowledge there is still a lot we don't know about the variant. For instance, it's unclear how sick it makes people or whether it is more easily transmissible. So far, scientists aren't sure if it can evade detection through testing.

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, there was growing global concern over the omicron variant.

By Monday, there were 15 countries with confirmed cases of this COVID-19 mutation, which was first detected in South Africa this month.

VIDEO: Experts peg omicron as 'worst variant that we have come across'

Scientists are rushing to learn more about the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, which they say has 50 mutations compared to Delta's 19.

While local health experts told ABC7 News that there is still much more to learn, looking ahead to holiday celebrations, UCSF Professor of Epidemiology Dr. George Rutherford said, "I wouldn't be going to Southern Africa if I were you."

"I suspect that's the one concrete bit of advice I can give," he added.

Dr. Rutherford said he anticipates domestic holiday travel and gatherings this year won't be locked down like they were last year.

There is agreement in the South Bay as Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said the on-going pandemic has uncovered what works. Specifically, practices that have helped us stay protected against other COVID-19 strains such as Delta.

"That includes vaccination and boosting, and testing, and ventilation, and masking," Dr. Cody told ABC7 News. "And all the things that this community in particular has done an excellent job at."

RELATED: Health experts say Bay Area may be more protected from omicron

Local experts admit there is currently little information about how the omicron variant spreads or how it reacts to vaccines. However, they add, if it's not here yet, it'll hit home soon.

"It'll probably come to the U.S. this week- next week," Dr. Rutherford predicted. "And it'll spread around pretty rapidly after that, especially to big population centers where there's also a lot of air traffic going around... like San Francisco."

Hospital Epidemiologist at Stanford, Dr. Jorge Salinas added, "I think it's just a matter of time before we recognize it. It may be here already, but we haven't recognized it yet."

However, there is hope the Bay Area's high vaccination rate will aide in keeping the upcoming holidays happy.

Experts advise people should weigh the potential risks when making party plans or packing to travel.

RELATED: All vaccinated adults should get COVID-19 booster shot because of omicron variant, CDC says

The U.S. implemented its latest travel ban to stop the spread of coronavirus on Monday. Travel is restricted for people coming from eight countries in Southern Africa in response to the discovery of omicron.

The countries include South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Also Monday, the CDC upped its recommendations for booster shots. It now says everyone who is six months past their final Pfizer or Moderna shot, or two months past their Johnson & Johnson shot should get a booster.

"If everybody in your gathering is vaccinated and boosted, chances are that you will be okay," Dr. Salinas shared. "I think that you will be okay."