Louisville-area hospital leaders say it could be several weeks before they know what the new COVID-19 variant omicron means to the pandemic, but they’re poised to respond as needed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) was notified Nov. 24 of the first case of the variant, detected in South Africa from a sample taken two weeks before.
The WHO has deemed omicron a “variant of concern” in part because preliminary evidence shows the mutation could lead to reinfection. But testing is underway to determine how it may affect transmissibility, severity of disease or effectiveness of current vaccines.
“It’s a big unknown right now, and I think that’s the biggest problem we have with this variant,” Dr. Jason Smith, chief medical officer at U of L Health, said during a Monday news conference.
Dr. Steven Hester, chief medical officer for the Norton Healthcare system, had a separate media briefing Monday morning. Both he and Smith reported a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past week, but say it’s not likely that increase is due to omicron, which hasn’t been detected in the U.S. yet.
As of Monday, there were around 100 people at Norton with COVID, including 29 in the ICU and 11 on ventilators. At U of L, there were 68 COVID patients with 21 in the ICU and seven on ventilators.
Smith said the more recent cases as the delta variant has surged through the U.S. have been younger people than those first affected at the start of the pandemic. These younger people, he said, are less likely to die from the disease — though it can happen — and more likely to suffer long-term complications.
He said if it has a resistance to vaccines, “my biggest concern is that it finds its way back to the older population,” he said.
Both doctors also urge residents to continue hand-washing, wearing a mask, observing social distancing and getting vaccinations and booster shots to help mitigate the ongoing pandemic. They report between 90% and 95% of those hospitalized with COVID have not been fully vaccinated.
“The biggest thing I can say of all is with all the variants, it’s more likely to hit those that are unvaccinated,” Hester said.
“And so that’s going to be a key piece of this — getting a vaccine, getting a booster to make sure that you’re getting yourself protected.”
The doctors also say their teams are prepared to adapt and move resources if the new variant turns out to have characteristics more dangerous than the highly-transmissible delta variant.
“Throughout this pandemic, one of the things we’ve learned more than anything is change is important,” Hester said. He hopes to have more information on omicron as international health leaders do further testing.
“There’s not a lot of data on that, so it’s really an early warning sign to say we think there’s something coming out that’s a concern,” Hester said of the WHO designation. “Let’s make sure we’re looking at all the things that are necessary to best be prepared.”