Health departments report first omicron variant case in Kent County

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Local health officials reported the first COVID-19 omicron variant detected in Kent County.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) on Thursday, Dec. 9, announced a positive omicron variant case in a Kent County resident. The Michigan Disease Surveillance System was first informed of the case on Dec. 3 and MDHHS was notified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the specificity of the variant after a commercial laboratory conducted genetic sequencing and reported the case as part of the CDC’s surveillance program.

“We are concerned, although not surprised, about the discovery of the omicron variant in Michigan,” said Elizabeth Hertel, MDHHS director. “We continue to urge Michiganders ages 5 and up to get vaccinated and continue participating in measures we know slow the spread of the virus by wearing well-fitting masks properly, social distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and testing for COVID-19. Vaccines are our best defense against the virus and how we can manage the spread of COVID-19.”

MDHHS is coordinating with KCHD in the ongoing investigation of the case, and a public health follow-up will include an assessment of the potential of out-of-state exposure, compliance with isolation guidance and the notification of close contacts. Vaccine records showed the adult was fully vaccinated but had not yet received a booster dose. The CDC expects anyone with a positive omicron case can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t show symptoms. Similar to other variants, including delta, vaccines remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death and are expected to do the same with the new omicron variant, which health experts say further emphasizes the importance of primary vaccinations and boosters.

Several factors contribute to current case rates; however, according to state data, unvaccinated people carry 4.4 times the risk of testing positive for COVID and 9.3 times the risk of dying from the virus compared to those who are fully vaccinated.

“We have tools that prevent the spread of COVID-19, including omicron. However, we continue to see that those not utilizing these tools, including vaccines, are disproportionately affected by this virus,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, MDHHS chief medical executive. “The data is clear that these vaccines are extremely safe and effective, and the side effects of COVID-19 are much worse than receiving a vaccine. I emphasize the importance of not waiting to get vaccinated. Now is the time.”

According to the CDC, the variant is likely to spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, but how easily omicron spreads compared to the delta variant remains unknown.

The omicron variant, B.1.1.529 was classified as a variant of concern by the CDC on Nov. 30. This classification is given to a variant showing evidence of being more contagious and/or causing more severe illness or resistance to diagnostics, treatments or vaccines.

According to MDHHS, viruses constantly change through mutation and new virus variants are expected over time. MDHHS’s Bureau of Laboratories is a national leader in whole genome sequencing for SARS-CoV-2 and will continue to monitor for variants of concern.

“The identification of the omicron variant is not unexpected,” said Dr. Adam London, director, KCHD. “We are fortunate that we have effective, safe and available vaccines that can protect us from this illness. We continue to urge people to get their vaccine and to get their boosters as soon as they are eligible.”

Throughout the pandemic, laboratories across the state submitted whole genome sequencing samples to the state public health laboratory to help monitor the emergence of any variants of concern. The sequencing allows scientists to examine the genetic material of pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2. MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories prioritizes additional specimens for whole genome sequencing when there is increased concern for a new virus variant, such as in those who have traveled to a place where the variant is known to be circulating.

Omicron first was detected in South Africa on Nov. 11, and the U.S. confirmed its first case of the variant on Dec. 1. Michigan is one of more than 20 other states that have confirmed detections of the variant.

Guidance from the CDC recommends a 10-day isolation period after symptom onset for those testing positive for COVID. Individuals are encouraged to inform contacts of their potential exposure and potential need for quarantine. Close contact is defined as an individual who was within six feet of a confirmed case for more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

Nearby vaccination locations are on the CDC’s vaccine locator website.

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