Health officials are urging vaccinations and booster doses after Alaska’s first case of the new omicron COVID-19 variant was identified in an Anchorage resident this week.
The individual traveled internationally in November and tested positive for COVID-19 in Anchorage.
There’s no history of vaccination for the person in the state’s registry, meaning they could have been vaccinated somewhere else or were unvaccinated, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said Tuesday.
Health officials do not have information regarding the person’s close contacts, their symptoms or whether the Anchorage resident was hospitalized because five separate attempts to contact them were unsuccessful, McLaughlin said.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Alaska health officials that the individual may have been exposed to the omicron variant on the airplane heading back to the U.S. or somewhere else, including in the country where the person traveled, according to McLaughlin.
The case hasn’t been linked to a local COVID-19 outbreak but is under investigation, and the name of the country where the person traveled is not being released for privacy reasons, according to the Anchorage Health Department.
This is the only case of the omicron variant detected in Alaska so far, though additional cases are expected and outbreaks could occur, McLaughlin said.
“I want Alaskans to know that based on the current information that’s available about omicron, it does appear to be more transmissible, or more infectious, than the delta strain, which we know was highly infectious,” he said.
While there’s a high potential omicron could spread quickly, early data shows it might cause less severe symptoms, though it’s too early to say that with certainty, McLaughlin said.
That’s because omicron cases in places like South Africa have often involved vaccinated or previously infected people, and they’ve occurred disproportionately among younger people who don’t have the same risks for severe illness as older people.
Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, compared the emergence of the omicron variant to storm clouds on the horizon.
“We’ve seen how it has become the dominant virus in South Africa, and it spread very quickly to other parts of the world, but it’s not very common really anywhere in the U.S.,” he said.
Until the variant circulates through a place like the U.S. and researchers can see how it affects people, there will still be many unanswered questions about it, he said.
“We’re used to getting a lot of information pretty quickly about COVID, but in this situation, until this variant spreads more widely and until these ongoing investigations can be pulled together and reported on, we’re going to be a bit in the dark,” he said.
The delta variant, which is highly transmissible and makes up the bulk of Alaska’s cases every week, began as a trickle before quickly becoming the dominant strain in a matter of weeks, Hennessy said.
“If this is as transmissible as delta, or more so, I would expect to see a rapid upswing in cases,” he said of the new variant.
National and international health officials have said that all the actions that protect against COVID-19 in general work for the omicron variant of the virus, including masking, social distancing, avoiding crowds and getting tested if you show symptoms.
Early studies have shown that omicron might be better at evading immunity than delta, McLaughlin said, but booster doses do improve protection against COVID-19 and severe impacts of the disease, like hospitalization and death.
That means vaccination is still critical as other strains emerge. And omicron should serve as an incentive to do so, he said.
“Because omicron is so highly transmissible, for anybody who thinks that they might just be able to wait this pandemic out and avoid getting infected, the likelihood of that occurring over time is very low,” McLaughlin said. “The virus is continuing to spread and find its way into those people who are susceptible.”