Lots of news about omicron Thursday — here’s what it means in Austin-Travis County


AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’re following the COVID-19 pandemic closely, Thursday offered a lot of reading material.

Between the Biden administration announcing its pandemic plan heading into the winter and the CDC announcing a second case of omicron was found in the United States — there’s a lot to keep up with this week.

What does it all means for you here in Austin-Travis County? We answered some of those most frequently asked questions about the new variant discovered in South Africa that is quickly spreading worldwide.

Is the omicron variant in Austin-Travis County?

As of Dec. 2, the omicron variant has not officially been detected in Austin-Travis County, but Austin Public Health says testing data often lags and that we should assume the variant is here.

The variant has not been detected in Texas either as of Thursday, but the Department of Health and Human Services told KXAN they are expanding their sequencing efforts to try and detect any local cases early.

There have been several cases of the omicron variant reported in the United States so far.

“Scientists around the world are now working to quickly ascertain what the impact of this variant is going to be on all of us,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, said this week.

What’s the deal with mutations?

“This virus has mutations, some have reported as many as 43. I heard a report from someone at NIH (National Institutes of Health) that there may be as many as 50,” Walkes explained.

Mutations were not commonly discussed with the delta variant, or the variants prior. So why are we hearing about it now?

A mutation, according to the CDC, is “a single change” in a virus’s genetic code. A variant then is a genetic code that contains one or more mutations.

The Texas Medical Association broke it down this way for us: think of it as a game of telephone.

The phrase you start with is the original virus. If someone messes up and says one word wrong, that’s like a mutation. One word might change the meaning of the phrase, it may not — same with mutations.

When you have multiple word changes and they change the sentence (or the virus in this example), that’s a variant.

Austin Public Health told us omicron’s mutations are concerning because a number of them involve spike protein. That means they can attach themselves to our cells more easily and therefore spread more easily.

So…will vaccines work against omicron?

The CDC says not enough research has been done to determine whether or not vaccine efficacy will be different for omicron than it is for its predecessors.

Still, the CDC and local health leaders say getting vaccinated is your best defense against catching COVID-19 and getting seriously sick or dying from it.

“We have reports that the cases that have been seen in South Africa have been mild, so we assume that there will be some level of protection from the vaccines that we have,” Walkes said. She reemphasized how important it was to get vaccinated and get a booster shot if you’re eligible.

You can find a vaccine on the City of Austin’s website.

Can I get tested for omicron?

As was the case with the delta variant, a test you would get at a pharmacy or your doctor’s office will only tell you whether or not you have COVID-19, it will not tell you which specific variant you have.

The process that determines variant is called sequence testing. It’s expensive and supplies are limited so it’s done only in certain cases. The data is then projected onto the community to estimate how widespread variants are (think of it like a survey).

The state of Texas is responsible for sequence testing for Austin-Travis County.

Even though the test won’t tell you which variant you have, health leaders say you should get tested for COVID-19 if you are exposed or experiencing symptoms so you can limit spreading COVID-19 to others.

Thursday Pres. Joe Biden announced he is moving to make at-home tests free for everyone, regardless of insurance.

“The bottom line is if you’re sick, get tested, stay home, and contact your healthcare provider for advice to see if you qualify for treatment,” Walkes said.

What makes this a ‘variant of concern?’

Dr. Desmar Walkes described that this variant is listed as a “variant of concern” because “it seems to be spreading more rapidly.” She said the actual transmissibility of the new variant is yet to be determined.

The CDC classifies variants on its website this way:

Scientists monitor all variants but may classify certain ones as variants being monitoredvariants of interestvariants of concern and variants of high consequence. Some variants spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.

These classifications are based on how easily the variant spreads, how severe the symptoms are, how the variant responds to treatments, and how well vaccines protect against the variant.

How do I protect myself?

Right now, the best practices against the delta variant are also what health leaders are recommending for the omicron variant. Getting vaccinated, wearing a mask in private indoor spaces with people you don’t know, testing when sick and other best practices.

“It’s still the same measures that we have been using all along to protect ourselves,” Walkes said.

If you have unanswered questions about the omicron variant, or COVID-19 in general, email digital reporter Grace Reader at grace.reader@kxan.com.

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