Officials looking out for omicron variant in Colorado, Pitkin County
State and local public health officials are actively monitoring for the presence of a new COVID-19 variant first identified by scientists in South Africa, though it has not yet been found in Colorado or the U.S.
The omicron variant, which is feared to be vaccine-resistant and may be more contagious than previous virus mutations, has prompted U.S. travel bans from some South African countries in recent days after its discovery.
“Public health is on it,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said Tuesday. “We’re just hoping people stay vigilant and know that it’s on the horizon.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a news release Monday night it is “closely monitoring for the omicron variant” and is in contact with the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention and other agencies about it.
“There are currently no confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Colorado, but the state has several mechanisms to detect the virus,” according to the release.
Those included genome sequencing by the state public health lab and private labs to monitor samples of COVID-19 tests in the state, as well as monitoring the virus particles in wastewater.
“The state lab looks for genetic markers in wastewater and is able to identify markers consistent with the presence of COVID-19 variants, including omicron, through wastewater monitoring,” the release states.
Sabella said the omicron variant is easier and quicker to detect in samples than, for example, the delta variant that caused COVID-19 case numbers to swell this fall. The sequencing tests take about a week to identify the delta variant, while omicron can be positively identified in about two days, she said.
COVID-19 samples taken locally must be sent to the state lab for sequencing, Sabella said.
Residents should continue to take non-pharmaceutical measures to remain safe — indoor facemasks, social distancing, limiting social contacts — in the face of the omicron variant’s likely imminent arrival, she said. Free COVID-19 testing is available throughout Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley for anyone with or without symptoms. Go to covid19.pitkincounty.com and click on “Get Tested” for location information.
Those who want to get vaccinated for the first time or obtain a booster vaccine dose can go to the same web address and click on “Get Vaccinated” to schedule a time in one of the upcoming area clinics.
Much remains to learn about the omicron variant, including whether it is actually more contagious than previous mutations, the severity of the cases of COVID-19 it causes and what level of protection the vaccines provide.
The current COVID-19 situation in Pitkin County has been harder to discern this week because the county’s COVID-19 website was experiencing technical problems and had not been updated in more than a week as of Tuesday. A county official said the problems were expected to be cleared up by Tuesday night.
However, local COVID-19 incidence rates appear to have decreased since an outbreak in Aspen in November related to hockey games spiked case numbers. The county’s incidence rate Tuesday was between 100 and 150 per 100,000 people, according to state and federal COVID-19 databases.
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With case counts dropping and the tension on the local hospital easing, Pitkin County’s COVID-19 omicron wave appears to be ebbing.