Omicron ‘will land in our laps,’ Murphy says

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | NOVEMBER 30, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

The World Health Organization officially declared a new coronavirus variant in southern Africa “of concern,” naming it omicron.

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As omicron crept closer to the U.S. — with new travel bans announced Monday — New Jersey officials were preparing to deal with the latest COVID-19 variant here and urged residents to continue the familiar pandemic precautions, especially getting vaccinated.

“The reality is that as our region is a hub of international travel and commerce, we must be ready now in anticipation of this variant hitting us,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday at his weekly pandemic media briefing. “It is inevitable this new variant will land in our laps.”

Murphy said he was scheduled to talk to the White House on Monday evening about infection control precautions at Newark International Airport, an easy vector for global disease. Federal officials restricted flights from South Africa — which first identified the omicron variant last week — and other African nations in the region to reduce the potential for spread in this country. The new strain has been found in half a dozen European nations and in a Canadian case on Monday.

What is known about new variant

However, Murphy and New Jersey health commissioner Judy Persichilli urged people not to panic, stressing that much remains unknown about the new variant. While some reports indicate omicron could result in less severe outcomes than other COVID-19 strains, it also appears to impact younger people who are generally at lower risk for infection and could be more transmissible than other forms of the virus, based on concerns about the multiple mutations it involves.

“Increasing our booster uptake will be vital in blunting the impact of this and other new variants,” Persichilli said, noting that 29% of New Jerseyans eligible for a booster shot have received their extra dose. Nearly 6.2 million residents have been immunized against COVID-19, and more than 1.2 million have also received boosters, which are now available to all vaccinated adults a number of months after they get their initial shots.

State health officials also urged residents to wear a face covering when in crowds, especially if they don’t know the vaccination status of others, and gather outdoors if possible to reduce the infection risk. Murphy noted that masks are required for all age groups in schools and “strongly recommended” for other public settings, adding, “let’s triple underscore that’s a strong recommendation.”

As to potential policy changes to address the omicron variant, Murphy said it was too soon to say for sure what would be needed. New Jersey already has the power to enhance its pandemic response, he said, like suspending elective surgery to create more hospital bed space, something New York made possible last weekend. New COVID-19 diagnoses and hospitalizations in New Jersey are both up 12% over last week, according to the Washington Post tracker, but Persichilli said hospital capacity is not currently a concern.

All viruses mutate over time, experts note, and New Jersey has been tracking multiple COVID-19 variants in the state since March, when they first began to emerge in force and expanded rapidly in the months that followed. Initial concerns included the New York variant and a strain from Brazil, but eventually delta — found to be as contagious as chickenpox — became the dominant form, now accounting for nearly all the cases in the state and nation.

State’s testing labs are ready

New Jersey health officials are taking steps to ensure the state’s network of public and private testing labs are now on watch for the omicron variant. Persichilli said that the unique signature of the mutations created by the new variant allows omicron to be identified at certain labs through a PCR test, the most common form of COVID-19 screening.

“This will help lead to efficient detection of this variant while further sequencing is being performed,” Persichilli said. “Our (state health department) lab is reaching out to clinical labs to be on the lookout for this pattern and to report if and when it is observed.”

State health officials said they are now working to determine which commercial labs have the capacity to flag the new variant while processing PCR tests. When a variant is found, it must then be confirmed using a more complex genetic sequencing process, something that is only performed on a sliver of all the COVID-19 tests collected. Persichilli said the state is now sequencing about 1,200 tests a week, which represents about 8.5% of the total, according to her staff.

“We’re on high alert right now,” state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan said Monday. “As the commissioner had mentioned, our laboratory is monitoring this as well as we’re hoping to get our commercial labs ramped up.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-30 03:31:24 -0800