Omicron in Colorado: How CDPHE Is Preparing for New COVID Variant's Arrival

A graphic depiction of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
A graphic depiction of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. YouTube
Colorado health officials believe it's not a question of if the newly discovered Omicron variant will arrive in the state, but when.

Colorado has been on the leading edge of the virus before. In late December 2020, the first American case of COVID from the U.K. variant known as B.1.1.7 was linked to Simla, a community in Elbert County. That mutation was ultimately superseded by the Delta variant, initially discovered in India, which accounted for 100 percent of the cases sequenced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for the week ending November 14, the most recent for which statistics are available. And with infections from Omicron confirmed in Canada and President Joe Biden issuing travel restrictions to several countries in southern Africa, where the latest variant is thought to have originated, the state health department is on the lookout for this latest threat to public health.

To learn more about Omicron and what Colorado is doing to prepare for it, we reached out to CDPHE director of communications Jessica Bralish. Here's our conversation, conducted via email late on November 29:

Westword: How would your department describe the concerns about the Omicron variant? Is it believed to be more transmissible and dangerous than the Delta variant? Less? Or at this point, are scientists and researchers still trying to determine just how risky it is?

Jessica Bralish: B.1.1.529 is a new variant that was detected in early November in South Africa, and may be responsible for an increase of cases in that country. Researchers are still learning about the variant, but there are concerns about some of the mutations on the spike protein of the virus, and, therefore, it is possible that it might be more transmissible than other variants, or might be able to evade immune response.

Two cases of the Omicron variant have reportedly been confirmed in Canada, meaning that it's now been found in North America. Are authorities here on the lookout for indications that the Omicron variant is in Colorado? If so, what are officials doing to identify potential cases? Are there specific tests that need to be done to make this determination, and if so, are these tests available and ready in the state?

Yes, Colorado is watching closely for the Omicron variant. New variants of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) have been shown to spread globally over time. In Colorado, the CDPHE laboratory and some private laboratories conduct genome sequencing on human samples that are positive for SARS-CoV-2 from around the state. This allows us to track the variants that are circulating in our state. To date, the omicron variant has not been detected in Colorado. You can find Colorado’s current variant data on our website.

In addition, since August of 2020, CDPHE has been working with Colorado wastewater utilities and Colorado State University to monitor wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 levels in our communities, culminating in the Colorado Wastewater Surveillance Collaborative. We are adding protocols to track the omicron variant as well. Wastewater surveillance allows us to identify the presence of a virus in a community before we have results from clinical testing. This method allows us to estimate trends of disease within a community because it can capture data on individuals who are asymptomatic or who may not seek testing. This surveillance system can act as an early warning system to give our local partners the opportunity to respond to viral hotspots quickly and help control the spread of disease in our communities. Just under half of COVID-19 cases, including those who do not have symptoms, are believed to shed SARS CoV-2 in their stool. 

If the omicron variant does begin to spread in Colorado, what are the potential repercussions?

We are still learning about the Omicron variant. Any variant with the potential for increased disease transmission is particularly dangerous for individuals who are unvaccinated.

New variants of the virus are expected to occur. Vaccines are the safest, most effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, as well as help avoid the worst outcomes — severe illness, hospitalization and death — among those who do become infected. CDPHE also encourages all Coloradans age eighteen and up to get a booster dose as soon as possible if it has been at least six months since they got their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or at least two months since they got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. There are more than 1,700 vaccine providers across the state.

How effective are current vaccines against the Omicron variant? And is there the possibility that vaccine manufacturers can tweak the current vaccine to make it effective, or more effective, against the Omicron variant?

We still are learning about this variant and whether and to what degree it might be able to evade the immune response. 

In the meantime, is the best way for Coloradans to avoid being infected by any variant of COVID-19 to be vaccinated, wear masks in public indoor spaces and maintain physical distance from other individuals whenever possible?

The best way for Coloradans to protect themselves is to get vaccinated, and get a booster. We urge Coloradans to wear a mask in indoor public spaces, limit large gatherings, wash their hands frequently and practice physical distancing. We have implemented vaccine requirements for certain indoor event venues, and several counties have instituted vaccine or mask mandates at indoor public spaces.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts