Phoenix-area health official on omicron: ‘It’s probably already here’

Dec 7, 2021, 11:01 AM | Updated: 11:03 am
A laboratory technician isolates COVID-19 samples at the Genview Diagnosis lab on August 13, 2021 i...
A laboratory technician isolates COVID-19 samples at the Genview Diagnosis lab on August 13, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (File Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
(File Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – A high-ranking metro Phoenix health official said Tuesday that while the omicron variant of COVID-19 hasn’t yet been confirmed in Arizona, “it’s probably already here.”

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director of disease control for Maricopa County Public Health, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News that the county is working with the state health department and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) to detect the highly contagious new variant.

“We have not yet identified it in Arizona,” she said. “However, it has been identified in enough states that most of us think it’s probably here already.”

Omicron was first confirmed in the United States last week in California and has since been detected in at least 15 states.

Sunenshine said the lack of knowledge about omicron, which was classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization less than two weeks ago after it was identified in southern Africa, is what makes it worrisome.

“There are lots of mutations, we know that for sure, and we think that these mutations might affect the ability of the vaccine and for natural infection to create immunity,” she said.

“So it’s likely that it’s very contagious.”

Dr. Richard Carmona, the state’s top pandemic adviser, told KTAR News’ The Mike Broomhead Show on Tuesday that it could take a couple of weeks of research before scientists can determine if omicron is more contagious than other forms of COVID, how sick it makes people, and how effective the current vaccines are against it.

“There’s a lot of conjecture coming from around the world, and we probably just need to sit tight and continue to use our mitigation strategies, get vaccinated, wear a mask where appropriate and let the scientists decide on the unique characteristics,” Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, said.

Sunenshine emphasized the importance of vaccines at a time Arizona hospitals are seeing the highest levels of COVID patients since February, in the early days of the vaccine rollout.

“Which is why whether it’s the delta or the omicron, it’s so important to get vaccinated,” she said.

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Phoenix-area health official on omicron: ‘It’s probably already here’