How Colorado is looking for omicron, and what you can do to contain the spread

Sonya Doctorian for CPR News
Approximately 1,400 people live in Kiowa County, Colorado, shown on March 25, 2020.

Editor's note: this story has been updated to include what we know about the transmissibility of variant so far.

The new omicron variant of the coronavirus hasn’t yet been detected in the United States. But many epidemiologists say it’s a question of when, not if, it will arrive, as other prominent strains of COVID-19 have over the past two years. 

Colorado identified the delta variant in May of this year, soon after it was first found in the U.S. About six months later, it now accounts for all of the cases here, and has created a stress on hospitals and healthcare workers that is affecting patients, showing the potential for mutations of COVID-19 to disrupt life in Colorado.

To buy time to learn more about omicron’s transmissibility and how it might fare against COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. has limited travel from some of the countries where the variant has been detected. CPR spoke to public health experts in Colorado to learn how the state will know when omicron arrives here, and what can be done to contain its spread.

How is Colorado monitoring for the omicron variant?

Colorado is using two main mechanisms to detect the variant.

First, in the state laboratory, as well as in private and commercial labs, scientists are using genetic sequencing on a sampling of tests to detect COVID-19 variants, including omicron.

Right now, across the state, the state lab and private labs are conducting genome sequencing on about 16 percent of the state’s positive COVID-19 cases, according to a spokesperson for the state health department. Genome sequencing can only be conducted on samples collected with PCR tests — not at-home rapid tests.

Second, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, says the state works with wastewater utilities to monitor COVID-19 levels, and to look for specific genetic markers of variants, including the omicron variant.

Herlihy said the state is “really working to enhance those mechanisms right now.”

How likely is it that the omicron variant will come to Colorado — or may already be here?

It’s an inevitability that the omicron variant will be detected in Colorado, in the opinion of Dr. Anuj Mehta, an ICU pulmonologist with Denver Health who advises the state on pandemic-related issues like vaccine allocation and hospital guidance.

“I think it’s a matter of time, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that it’s already here,” he told Colorado Matters.

Since the omicron variant was first identified overseas last week, scientists have hypothesized that it could be more transmissible than the delta variant. Herlihy said that hypothesis is supported by early data out of South Africa.

“Delta has been very efficient at finding unvaccinated people, including children who were not yet eligible for vaccine,” she said. “And we are certainly concerned omicron could potentially do the same thing, meaning that unvaccinated individuals will be at greater risk now and in the future than they’ve ever been.”

Toni Burket, the epidemiology and disease prevention manager in Denver, told Denverite that omicron has mutations affecting spike proteins, or the nubs that protrude from the surface of the virus. 

“These mutations are the things that can make these variants either more transmissible, cause more severe disease, potentially evade vaccine effectiveness or make monoclonal antibody treatment less effective,” Burket said.

How worried should we be about the omicron variant?

Globally, a relatively small number of people are known to have the omicron variant of the virus, even though it has been identified in nearly 20 countries in about a week. The mutations Burket and Herlihy noted suggest omicron could be more transmissible than previous variants, but there is no certainty yet about that. Additionally, drugmakers and governments are quickly trying to figure out how effective vaccines and treatments are against omicron, but there’s no firm data on that, either. 

It’s too soon to know if omicron could affect certain subsets of people more severely, like the elderly or children, and what type of action might be necessary if something like that turns out to be the case.

Overall, Burket said it’s not time to panic. President Joe Biden said the same on Monday. Though they, and public health leaders including at the World Health Organization, recommend taking proactive steps.

What can you do to help prevent the spread of the variant?

While scientists rush to find out more about the omicron variant, Herlihy and Mehta advise continuing the same measures that have been promoted throughout the pandemic: wash hands, limit indoor gatherings, wear a mask and get vaccinated.

Additionally, Mehta said it’s critical for individuals to get tested if they experience symptoms, even if they don’t feel very sick, so that people who test positive don’t spread the virus further. 

He said at-home rapid tests can be useful, especially for vaccinated people wanting an extra layer of confidence to go out in public in the near future, but he strongly advises getting a PCR test if you are symptomatic, calling them “the gold standard.”

“It may take, you know, 24 to 48 hours to come back. It may involve a difficult swab up the nose, but that’s how we’re really going to be able to track [the virus],” he said. “It may not be that you get very sick with delta or omicron; let’s remember, the vast majority of people that get COVID actually do OK at home. But it’s really critical from a public health perspective to know if you have COVID, especially with the more infectious variants.”

How will the state work to contain the omicron variant?

The state is “going to be working closely with travelers that have returned from countries that have been impacted,” Herlihy said. She added that the state is enhancing its case investigation and contact tracing work, though contact tracing has been challenging at times in Colorado over the course of the pandemic.

In terms of any restrictions on public life, Herlihy reiterated that the state recently implemented vaccine requirements for indoor events with 500 people or more, and “strongly recommends” masking indoors, though the state has not implemented a statewide indoor mask mandate. Herlihy said she does not know of any planned changes on that front.

Several of Colorado’s populous counties instituted indoor mask mandates recently, but Mehta has long called for a statewide mandate, largely to alleviate pressure on hospitals at a critical time when COVID-19 transmission is high in Colorado.

“We're seeing unprecedented hospital strain, both from COVID and non-COVID,” Mehta said. “And we typically, even outside of the pandemic, see increases in hospitalizations in the winter from routine respiratory viruses. So masks actually will not only decrease COVID, but will decrease influenza and other things that put people in the hospital.”