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Coronavirus

Omicron variant detected in Pennsylvania. Here’s what you need to know.

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Officials around the world are united in their No. 1 recommendation: Get vaccinated if you aren’t already, and if you are, get a booster shot.
Officials around the world are united in their No. 1 recommendation: Get vaccinated if you aren’t already, and if you are, get a booster shot.
Fred Adams / For Spotlight PA

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Updated: Dec. 21, 2021

HARRISBURG — The omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Pennsylvania.

The development was expected and is not a reason to panic, according to officials, but should prompt people to take extra precautions and to get vaccinated or a booster shot.

Here’s what you need to know:

What do we know about omicron?

At the moment, much of what we know about the omicron variant is preliminary and subject to change.

The U.S. government has classified it as a “variant of concern,” meaning “there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility” and “more severe disease.”

Government and health officials at every level — from local health systems in Pennsylvania to county health leaders to President Joe Biden — are urging unvaccinated people to get a shot as soon as possible in order to prevent serious illness caused by the omicron variant. Vaccinated people should get a booster if they haven’t already, they all have said repeatedly.

“We should all be concerned about omicron, but not panicked,” Biden said during a news briefing on Dec. 21.

An analysis of coronavirus samples from South Africa indicated it is more likely to cause reinfection than the delta variant — a highly contagious strain that was previously responsible for most cases in the U.S. It’s important to note that the researchers’ work has not been peer-reviewed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur.”

Early data also points to less severe infections, though that information is also far from definitive. The CDC says more research is needed.

Omicron is now the dominant variant in the United States, CDC data from Dec. 20 show.

What do we know about cases in Pennsylvania?

In early December, Philadelphia’s health department said a man in his 30s had tested positive for the omicron variant, but it did not provide additional details.

“It is not unexpected that we would see omicron here in Philadelphia,” Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said at the time in a press release.

In a recent statement, the state health department deferred to CDC data tracking the spread of the delta and omicron variants.

For the week ending Dec. 18 — the most recent CDC data available — omicron was the dominant variant in a region that includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

What do health officials say people should do?

Officials around the world are united in their No. 1 recommendation: Get vaccinated if you aren’t already, and if you are, get a booster shot.

Biden on Dec. 21 told vaccinated Americans that they could gather safely for the holidays, but stressed that they should get their booster shot if they had not already. He also issued a grave warning to unvaccinated people.

“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said. “You’re at a high risk of getting sick, and if you get sick, you’re likely to spread it to others, including friends and family. The unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital or even dying.”

CDC officials now recommend choosing a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for initial and booster shots.

The new recommendations were announced Dec. 16 and come months after reports of rare, but serious, blood clots caused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Those incidents are rare, but because there is now an ample supply of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the CDC panel responsible for reviewing vaccine safety and efficacy information recommends that anyone choosing between the three opt for one of those two.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will still be available for anyone who wants it or who needs it due to medical conditions.

Bettigole, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, also said masks, being outdoors, and social distancing are proven ways to protect against COVID-19.

What is the COVID-19 situation across PA?

As health professionals learn more about the omicron variant, they’re also dealing with infections caused by the aggressive delta variant, which emerged earlier this year.

Read more about the winter outlook for Pennsylvania and what you need to do to stay safe.

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