SWFL doctors, residents reacting to omicron COVID-19 variant

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Visualization of COVID-19 virus (Credit: CDC)

There was a huge sense of relief in Southwest Florida hospitals that the delta variant seemed to have slowed, but local health officials are becoming accustomed to the quick changes that come with COVID-19 and this new variant has their attention.

It is not the news any of us wanted to hear. The omicron variant is circulating alarmingly fast.

“This is going to become the dominant variant in all likelihood worldwide, and should be considered a very high-risk variant,” said Dr. David Lindner, the COVID-19 response leader for NCH. “I think the key points are that this variant went from a few sequence cases, to the dominant variant in days on the South African region.”

The rapid spread of this new variant is concerning, and so is the magnitude of mutations or changes in its structure. The further it gets from the Wuhan source virus, the tricker it becomes. The vaccines are based on the specific genetic structure of the original virus. Omicron shows an astounding development past that.

“Alpha had four mutations, OK, beta, we get into six, delta had 10 mutations. There were 26 mutations, three deletions, and specifically at the N-1 protein. This is a bad actor.” said Lindner of omicron.

Dr. Fauci confirmed that many of the important changes involve the protein spike which is used to break into our cells and replicate. More spikes, more chances for virus particles to infect.

Lindner said, “The early data on Omicron suggested it could be up to six times faster and more contagious than delta.”

How bad it will get remains to be seen. Early indications are that it will spread easily and may cause less severe illness, but only time will tell.

In the meantime, NCH and other health systems are using this interval to vaccinate more people and prepare for an influx of cases.

Dr. Lindner also said that if previous patterns hold up, we might experience a delay in our surge. That is what happened at the start of the pandemic and with delta, so the window to prepare might be greater in Florida.

With a small window to prepare for a possible omicron variant outbreak, schools in Southwest Florida are handcuffed by state law.

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