Southern Tier Tracking Omicron COVID-19 Variant

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Concern and COVID-19 cases are climbing across the Twin Tiers as health experts race to develop new vaccines intended to target the Omicron variant, a coronavirus strain that has mutations that experts fear could evade immunity provided by vaccination or natural infection.

As of Tuesday evening, no confirmed cases of the variant have been recorded in the United States, though Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested the strain may already be in parts of the country.

Here in the Twin Tiers, officials tell 18 News they’re not yet implementing any new safety protocols in wake of the new variant.

“Steuben County is not adjusting anything at this point in time in terms of anticipating what the effects of the variant might be,” Steuben County Public Health Director Darlene Smith said. “It really is too soon.”

It’s too soon to tell a lot of things, though early data from South Africa indicates the strain is highly contagious, as it has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein. The spike protein is the part of the virus that binds to the human cell causing infection.

“[Whether it’s] more deadly is yet to really be determined,” Arnot Health Infectious Disease Expert Dr. Justin Nistico said. “As of right now, we have no reason to believe that’s the case.”

Some early data suggests symptoms are milder than compared to other contagious strains, such as Delta. Still, officially in the Southern Tier are closely monitoring the variant.

“But the only way to confirm when a variant is in a particular area is when the laboratory confirms it for us,” Smith said. “[But] the Delta variant was here months before it was ever confirmed to me. I 100-percent believe it was here long before the laboratory confirmed it because of the number of cases.”

A high case count is how officials in South Africa first identified the variant. Originally, there was a low level of infection, then, all of a sudden, a surge.

Officials say the Twin Tier’s will likely know when the variant has reached the region based on the number of confirmed cases.

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