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Researchers across Missouri are using multiple methods to look for possible Omicron coronavirus cases

Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 10:13 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is now in the United States.

A person from California contracted it after a trip to South Africa. Health leaders say the person had received a second dose of the vaccine in August, but was not yet eligible for a booster shot. Health leaders also say the individual is recovering.

The Missouri Sewershed Surveilance Project has been tracking COVID-19 variants across the state for months, even ahead of the Delta variant. The project’s current data shows Omicron has not yet been detected in the state. Researchers behind this effort have been able to track the rapid progression of variants through wastewater.

The project’s researchers test the wastewater of more than 50 Missouri communities once a week. They also test the wastewater of all state facilities twice a week.

”In our surveillance efforts, all we’re looking for is particular mutations that we can match up,” said University of Missouri microbiology professor Marc Johnson.

Johnson is one of the lead researchers behind the project, along with researchers with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Hospitals filled up very quickly over the summer following the spread of the Delta variant, and Johnson said there are quite a few takeaways we can learn from that variant’s spread.

“It was clear by the end of May what the next three months were going to entail because it was spreading through communities,” he said. ”It didn’t matter whether they were urban or rural, high vaccination rate, low vaccination rate, rich, poor, it didn’t matter. It arrived, and then there was a huge spike in cases. So once I saw that, I’m like, there is no reason that these other states should think that this isn’t going to eventually reach them. And it eventually reached every one of them.”

As the Delta variant rapidly spread across Missouri, Johnson said he felt it gave other states a bit of a heads up of what was coming.

“It was mind boggling how quickly it got to every little nook and cranny of the state,” he said. “I was just amazed at how it just started popping up in rural sites across the state. It pretty much touched every corner. It was mind boggling. I didn’t think Missourians were that interconnected. You know, we’re not a big metropolitan state, we’re a bunch of rural towns.”

Johnson said this is an important mindset moving forward. He said the virus and its mutations can often spread very rapidly.

”This one just came out of left field,” Johnson said. “It’s a very large amount of changes in a very short period of time.”

Johnson said the mutations of the Omicron variant do not appear to be random.

“We know what these mutations are,” he said. “These are escape mutants, meaning these are mutations that have been selected for because it blocks an antibody from binding. They’re pretty clearly antibodies that are the viruses that have escaped from an immune system, or series of immune systems, if you will.”

The Springfield-Greene County Health Department is also looking for variations. Local cases are sent to labs on a weekly basis as well.

”We’re just now at the point where we’re going to start looking for or testing specifically for Omicron,” said Kendra Findley, the Administrator for Community Health and Epidemiology for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. “So we’re going to start asking that we not just look for Delta. We know Delta’s here. We’re going to ask that we start being able to test for Omicron, so that we can see what the health of our community is. And do we have it here and in what concentration?”

The CDC also does random sampling all across the country. Experts say it is too early to predict the severity of Omicron.

“It’s difficult because you don’t want to speculate too much,” Findley said. ”But what we do know is that the new variant Omicron is infectious. So in South Africa, they went from seeing 200 cases a day to 1,000 cases a day. So that tells us that it’s highly infectious from person to person.”

There is still much to learn about Omicron and the impact on vaccines, but experts still say the vaccine is the best line of defense.

“Go ahead and get that booster to make sure that you’re protected,” Findley said. “We know that Omicron is here. So we expect it to be circulating, if it’s not already.”

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