MISSOULA — The omicron COVID-19 variant may have been infecting people in the Netherlands before South Africa, where the World Health Organization (WHO) thought the new strain originated.
New information from a Dutch Health Agency says omicron was recently identified in samples that were re-tested from Nov. 19 and Nov. 23. South Africa reported it on Nov. 24. As of late Monday, 33 cases have been confirmed in eight European countries.
African health agencies are still working on an omicron case tally while local agencies are preparing for the virus to land closer to home.
Much is still unknown about the COVID-19 omicron variant — such as how it compares in severity to other coronavirus strains like the delta variant, or if it is yet circulating in the United States.
MTN News caught up with Missoula County COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr to learn about how local health officials are monitoring variants.
“What we know about coronaviruses is that the more they are spread, the more likely they are to have a mutation that turns into a new variant," Farr explained.
The omicron mutation hasn’t been confirmed in the U.S. It could be here, but confirmation takes available samples and testing infrastructure. “Right now we just don't have enough data," Farr said.
Locally, that data is a little hard to come by. Samples are tested for variants on a random basis at the Montana State Public Health Lab, according to Farr. But not every sample taken is even sent there.
“We're actually using FYR Diagnostics right now. They're a local laboratory, and I believe that if we want them to test for variants, then we have them send the sample up to the state to test it," Farr said.
Samples can be flagged if an individual recently traveled to South Africa, for example. The tools remain the same to stop the spread according to Farr — social distance, wash those hands, and get vaccinated.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact if any, the new variant will have on local health systems.