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Health officials await more data on Omicron variant

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The variant was just detected in California today.

Officials with the state health department are paying close attention to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 that originated in South Africa last month.

Disease Control section chief Kirby Kruger says the variant was first detected on November 11, and while it has not yet been found in North Dakota, it has since been found in California, as well as at least 23 countries on six continents. Along with Delta, Kruger says Omicron is a variant of concern due to the amount of mutations on its spike protein.

"The SARS-COV2 virus mutates frequently, but what's concerning about this particular one is the number of mutations on the spike protein, with at least 32 identified. Just as an example, Delta, there's been at least nine mutations identified there. So it's quite an increase in mutations on the spike protein."

Kruger says these mutations may increase transmissibility or reduce the effectiveness of vaccines or monoclonal antibody therapies. But for now, public health and science communities need time to observe and analyze the data.

Kruger says the good news is that physical distancing, avoiding crowds, masking and frequent hand washing are still effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. He also says vaccinations are currently the best tool at reducing risk of serious infection, hospitalization and death. Vaccination rates did jump up over 60 percent in North Dakota following the emergence of the Delta variant. Kruger says it remains to be seen how residents respond to Omicron.

"We are encouraging people to be vaccinated. You know, we're not trying to scare people into vaccination - but if people are motivated by the emergence of a new variant, we would encourage them to seek vaccination. There's lots of vaccines available."

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