Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday that he expects omicron to become the dominant form of COVID-19 in Colorado as he announced that health officials believe they have identified the state’s first case of community transmission of the variant.
Polis said five people in Colorado have been infected with the omicron variant so far. He didn’t provide details on the suspected community transmission case.
State health officials said Thursday that omicron has been detected in wastewater samples taken in Boulder, Aurora and in the southwest Denver metro area. The variant has also been found in a sample or samples taken from the South Adams County Water & Sanitation District.
“Omicron is coming,” Polis said at a news conference at the Aurora Municipal Center.
The governor urged people to get a COVID booster shot to ensure they are protected against the new variant, which was first detected last month in South Africa.
“There is increased urgency to get the third vaccine because from the preliminary data that has been presented to me, having three vaccines is absolutely critical to (having) the high level of protection against the omicron variant,” Polis said.
While the first omicron infections found in Colorado were in people who had recently traveled to Africa, a case of community spread in the state would mean the variant has expanded beyond people with a travel history.
Based on specimens collected last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said omicron accounted for about 3% of genetically sequenced coronaviruses nationally. Percentages vary by region, with the highest — 13% — in the New York/New Jersey area.
Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of omicron. In the United States, 36 states have detected the variant. Meanwhile, delta is surging in many places, with hot spots in New England and the upper Midwest. The five states with the highest two-week rolling average of cases per 100,000 people are New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont.
Universities are abruptly closing classrooms during finals week with infections multiplying at a fast rate. Both the NBA and NHL have had to postpone games, and the NFL had its worst two-day outbreak since the start of the pandemic, with dozens of players infected.
Scientists around the world are racing to understand omicron, which has a large number of worrisome mutations in important regions of its genetic structure that could affect how it spreads from person to person. How quickly the number of cases doubles, known as “doubling time,” can give a preview of what the disease burden could be in a few weeks.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that early data suggests omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days.
The U.K. on Wednesday recorded the highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, and England’s chief medical officer warned that the situation is likely to get worse as omicron drives a new wave of illness during the holidays.
“The data out of the UK are quite alarming at this point,” and foreshadow what’s to come in the United States, said Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. For example, she said, by Tuesday afternoon, omicron was already the most common variant in London.
In many ways, omicron remains a mystery. Hints are emerging from South Africa, where it was first reported, indicating it may cause less severe disease than delta but be better at evading vaccines.
But, MacInnis warned: “There’s much more that we don’t know about this variant than we do, including the severity.”
In Colorado, a recent surge of cases and hospitalizations appears to be easing.
There were 1,227 people hospitalized with COVID in Colorado as of Thursday, down from a recent peak of 1,576 on Nov. 23.
The day with the highest number of people hospitalized in Colorado was Dec. 1, 2020, when 1,847 were hospitalized.
“While cases are going down and vaccination rates do continue to go up we are still seeing high levels of hospitalizations across our state,” said Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.