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Utah doctor warns against omicron distracting from current delta threat

Posted at 5:38 PM, Nov 30, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — The new omicron variant hasn’t been detected in the United States yet, but doctors fear that day isn’t far away.

WATCH: Tooele man hospitalized for months after contracting COVID-19

An infectious diseases physician from Intermountain Healthcare cautions residents not to lose focus over the greater threat here in Utah.

“We don’t know much about this variant, this variant was identified last Wednesday,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem.

There have been many variants of the original coronavirus, but omicron has over 50 mutations, while Delta only has nine.

“Those characteristics could lead to different characteristics; it could lead to being more contagious or less contagious. Really early data, I am hesitant to make any claims about transmissibility,” said Dr. Stenehjem.

READ: Judge blocks vaccine mandate Utah filed lawsuit over

Omicron is the dominant viral variant out of South Africa, and in less than a week is already spreading across the globe. Still, there’s a bigger problem here at home.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening right now in Utah,” Stenehjem said.

That’s the Delta variant, which is currently overflowing ICUs at 102% capacity. And officials haven’t seen the full impact of the Thanksgiving holiday, creating a feeling of dread in the healthcare industry.

“We really hope we see a downward trend to give our caretakers a break and relieve some of the pressure in the ICU,” said Stenehjem.

READ: Utah reports 1,195 new COVID cases Tuesday; 20 new deaths

Of the patients hospitalized with COVID, 85% of patients being admitted are not fully vaccinated. But Dr. Stenehjem notes that most of those breakthrough cases leading to hospitalizations are elderly or have comorbidities.

"These are people that fail vaccines in general, they fail the influenza vaccine, these are people that haven’t been able to generate an immune response to appropriately protect them from COVID-19 and severe disease,” said Stenehjem.

Right now, Moderna and Pfizer are looking at what it would take to develop an omicron-specific vaccine, which could be just 100 days away.

Stenehjem says in the meantime, the challenge is the delta variant, which is why getting vaccinated and or boosted is helpful, adding that even those who have been infected should stillget the vaccine.

Health experts say the vaccine immunity starts to wane around 6 months. Around that time, people should consider the booster.