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Idaho doctor on new COVID-19 variant impacts: 'Still too early to tell'

Dr. David Pate said there is still not a lot known about the Omicron variant, but what researchers have seen has drawn concerns.

BOISE, Idaho — More families and friends came together to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this year in an attempt to return to normalcy. However, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in once this holiday weekend as news surrounding the newest variant began making waves around the world. 

"This may be what we've been warning about," said Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke's Health System and Idaho medical expert. 

Pate said there is not a lot known about the new variant, named Omicron by the World Health Organization, but what researchers have seen has them worried.

"The more transmissive it is, the more mutations you get," Pate said.

Omicron was detected earlier this month in South Africa, while Pate said researchers don't believe it originated in the country. He added it was only identified there first because of their testing capabilities. Researchers believe it started in a country where vaccination rates are low but don't know exactly where.

One of the reasons Pate said Omicron has drawn major concerns is because of the number of mutations it has in it. According to Pate, most of the other COVID-19 variants saw around 10-15 mutations, Omicron has more than 30.

"Some of those mutations we don't know what the significance is," Pate said. "Others of these mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and increased immune evasion."

Pate believes the variant could cause more infections in children. He urges school districts to not relax infection control measures, especially with the rate of vaccinations among eligible people in the state fully vaccinated.

The other area worrisome details are the breakthrough cases and people who tested positive for the Delta variant that appears to have been infected with Omicron. However, Pate said it is not a substantial number and more data is still needed.

"With all that said, it is extraordinarily unlikely that this variant can completely escape the immunity we've gotten from vaccines," Pate explained. He adds at this point there is no reason to believe those who are fully vaccinated and are up to date with their booster will not be protected against the new variant.

Pate said while it looks like it has all of the ingredients to capture the world's attention, again it is still too early to tell.

"We'll see, we've had some other variants before and they didn't turn out to be very big threats for us in the United States," Pate said.

Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told members of the White House COVID Response Team on Sunday it would be about two more weeks until they will learn more about the "transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant." 

As of Sunday, there are no confirmed cases of Omicron in the U.S. 

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's public information manager Niki Forbing-Orr said in an email Friday they have been watching the new variant closely. 

"If and when that happens in Idaho, it will be reflected on our dashboard on the laboratory testing page, similar to the other variants we’re monitoring," Forbing-Orr wrote.

She mentioned they do not test all cases for the variant and the best way to avoid sickness is to get vaccinated and continue to take the recommended precautions against COVID-19.

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