The omicron variant of COVID-19 has officially reached Oregon.
The Oregon Health Authority announced Monday evening, Dec. 13, that three cases of the new variant first detected in South Africa last month have been confirmed in Oregonians.
Two of the infected Oregonians live in Washington County. The third lives in Multnomah County.
All three are adults under 40. All were fully vaccinated as well, the OHA said, although it did not specify whether they had received booster doses.
At least two have experienced symptoms. Both of those individuals traveled internationally — one to Canada, the other to Mexico — prior to the onset of symptoms.
"Additional details on the condition of the (individuals) are not yet available," the OHA stated in a news release.
The presence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is highly mutated from the original strain of the virus that first surfaced in China in late 2019, was confirmed by laboratory sequencing, the OHA said. The agency credited Oregon Health & Science University for the sequencing work.
The Multnomah County resident infected with the omicron variant was tested Tuesday, Dec. 7. The two Washington County residents were tested Thursday, Dec. 9.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon's state epidemiologist, said the arrival of omicron in Oregon "was a matter of 'when,' not 'if.'"
"We recognize this news is concerning to many people," Sidelinger said in a statement. "However, if history is our guide, we do know that even if a vaccine doesn't target a specific variant, the strong immune response you get from being fully vaccinated can still be highly protective against severe disease from all COVID-19 variants."
Oregon is one of just a handful of states that have maintained an indoor mask mandate for public places even as the surge of late summer and fall, which was driven by the delta variant, has steadily ebbed. Neighboring California just announced Monday it will reinstate a similar mandate.
Whether omicron will supplant delta altogether is unclear, although data from South Africa and several European countries suggests omicron has grown rapidly even as delta cases have dwindled.
Also unclear is how likely people infected with omicron are to experience serious symptoms. The United Kingdom announced Monday that at least one Briton infected with omicron has died, the first confirmed omicron fatality since South Africa identified the new strain in November.
Preliminary studies do suggest that omicron's mutations make it more adept at evading prior immunity, whether from previous COVID-19 infections or from one of the several widely available vaccinations against COVID-19. However, they also found that recent vaccinations do still offer some modicum of protection against symptomatic omicron infection, which rises markedly with a booster dose, and experts believe that level of protection is much higher against serious illness.
In Oregon, the OHA said it will continue to monitor the spread of omicron "with robust individual-level and community-level variant surveillance."
The state continued to report hundreds of new infections per day. Nearly 5,500 Oregonians are known to have died of COVID-19, according to OHA data.
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