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Barcodes on saliva samples taken from students, staff and faculty as part of the University of Colorado Boulder's coronavirus testing program are scanned upon arrival in the BioFrontiers Institute COVID-19 surveillance laboratory that processes the samples. (Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)

While the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 has seen a slight decline, public health officials fear the new omicron variant could change that.

No confirmed cases of the potentially more transmissible variant have been detected in Colorado. 

The omicron variant was first identified overseas last week and there’s still a lot experts don’t know about the new variant, including how easily it spreads between people or the severity of symptoms, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s epidemiologist, said during a news conference Tuesday.

“We really at this point have a lot to learn about the omicron variant, but due to some of the mutations that are present, specifically in the spike protein of the variant, it is possible to make some predictions on our understanding of similar mutations that have been observed in other variants about what might be possible when it comes to characteristics of this particular variant,”  Herlihy said. 

It’s possible, she said, that the variant could be more transmissible or may mutate in a way that makes it more adept at evading the body’s immune system, potentially causing reinfection. It may be several weeks before epidemiologists get a better understanding of the risks of the variant. 

Vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus, she said. 

Several cases have been identified in Canada, Europe and Australia, but most local transmissions have been detected in South Africa, where the variant was first identified Nov. 24, Herlihy said. Most cases have been traced to travel. 

As of Tuesday, no cases of the omicron variant have been identified in the United States. 

Health officials are using three methods to detect the new variant, Emily Travanty, the state’s lab director said. First, scientists are using diagnostic testing, including at state labs and many community testing locations, to detect the variant. PCR tests and antigen tests will be able to identify the omicron variant, she said. 

Second, the state lab and some private laboratories are using genetic sequencing on samples that test positive for COVID-19 to detect variants. Nearly all samples in the state since July have been the delta variant, Travanty said.

The state is also continuing to work with wastewater utilities to monitor levels of virus particles found in poop, she said. Toilets across the Front Range have served as an early warning system for coronavirus outbreaks since the state launched a program in August 2020 to test sewage. 

News of the omicron variant comes as hospitalizations in Colorado remain high. Health leaders fear the months ahead, as people gather for the holidays, could further strain hospitals that are already overwhelmed.

As of Tuesday, 1,466 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 across Colorado, Herlihy said, noting a slight decrease from previous weeks. 

“We are seeing improvements in the data. It’s certainly reassuring to see that things appear to be trending in the right direction, but it is always to keep in mind too that following holidays we do sometimes see increases in cases that occur following holiday gatherings. …That is certainly a possibility that we are preparing for,” Herlihy said. 

Many counties across the state have implemented mask mandates, but Gov. Jared Polis has yet to issue a statewide order despite pressure from local public health leaders. 

Scott Bookman, COVID-19 incident commander, urged people to protect themselves from the new variant by wearing a mask, getting vaccinated and staying home when sick.

“We’re all tired of COVID. That’s the reality of the situation and this point. But COVID is not done with us and it is absolutely critical that we continue to take the precautions that are necessary to protect the capacity of our health care system and to protect each other,” Bookman said. 

He commended those jurisdictions that implemented a mask mandate.

“What I want to reiterate to all Coloradans is that we are in all of this together and the safest thing, the best thing that you can do is get that vaccine, wear a mask when indoors,” Bookman said. “Let’s take care of each other and get through this.”

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: