Local health officials say Omicron COVID-19 is a concern but doesn’t mean to panic

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) – The race is on to learn more about the recently discovered COVID-19 Omicron variant.

During this week’s Tri-County COVID-19 briefing, local health officials shared what is and isn’t known about the new strain.

Dr. Shareel Ahmad, a staff physician at OSF St. Francis, said Omicron “is a variant of concern, but it doesn’t mean this is a variant to be panicked about”.

During Tuesday’s briefing, Ahmad said there’s a lot of unknowns about the variant including if it causes more severe illness and if it’s more transmissible compared to other variants.

Ahmad said studies are being conducted worldwide to gain a better understanding of Omicron. He added that the variant has around 50 mutations, in comparison, variants such as Delta have fewer than 30.

In South Africa, where the variant was first found, Ahmad stated that there have been more people testing positive for COVID. He added that hospitalization rates are increasing in South Africa, but it may be due to overall COVID-19 numbers increasing as well and not Omicron.

“Our understanding of the level of severity will take days to several weeks,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad also said preliminary findings also suggest there could be an increased risk of reinfection due to Omicron, but the information is limited.

“We have to keep this in mind that we had the same concerns with Delta, but we know with the Delta the vaccines were still effective and boosters are actually helping us combat that issue as well,” Ahmad said.

According to Ahmad, BioNTech will know more about their vaccine effectiveness in two weeks. Companies Johnson & Johnson and Moderna are conducting studies too.

To help limit the impact of Omicron and other variants, health officials are encouraging the community to be vaccinated.

“The studies also suggest that people can boost their protection against any variant by having the 3 doses of vaccination,” Ahmad said.

On Tuesday, Peoria City/County Health Department administrator Monica Hendrickson also said COVID-19 cases are increasing locally.

“I would attribute it to cold weather. Doing things outside, that’s becoming less and less accessible,” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson said 1/3 of cases are in the younger age, but it’s up to everyone to follow mitigations to help schools and other community agencies.

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