The wait to discover Omicron in the United States ended at 4 a.m. on December 1, when a team of UC San Francisco scientists finished sequencing the variant from a woman who’d returned on November 22 from a trip to South Africa. By the next day, two more cases were discovered in Minneapolis and Colorado. While the woman in Colorado’s Arapahoe County had returned last week from a visit to several south African countries, the man in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, had only been to New York, visiting the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center. All three were vaccinated and had only mild symptoms.
The anxiety over Omicron stems from the high number of mutations it carries, said to be 50 or more, of which over 30 are on the spike protein. The virus uses its spike protein to bond strongly with human cells, where it duplicates into more viruses. Mutations similar to Omicron’s were seen on both the Alpha and the Delta variants, which both proved to be very contagious. As scientists learned about the life cycle of SARS-CoV-2, vaccine makers targeted the spike protein to interrupt the replication cycle. It’s possible that mutations in Omicron’s spike protein could render vaccines less effective, while other mutations could affect its strength and contagiousness. But tests are still ongoing in labs around the world to fill the knowledge gap.
Any panic over these possibilities is premature, Governor Gavin Newsom said yesterday at a press conference where he discussed the UCSF discovery. “For some,” he said with a shrug, “there’s a little bit of panic. But the panic has gotten ahead of the information.” Newsom argued that Californians had “agency” in the pandemic and choices that would avoid any shutdown of schools or businesses. “I see no indication at this moment that that’s in our future as long as we stay vigilant,” he said.
So far, the close contacts of the San Francisco case have tested negative. The two other cases are too new to have such information. Health officials praised all three individuals, however, for getting tested soon after noticing their symptoms. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio commented that residents should assume there is community spread.
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The major recommendation to prevent illness, as it has been since vaccines have been available, is to get vaccinated. People are also asked to wear masks indoors, to be tested if they have symptoms, and to stay home if they are sick.
In Santa Barbara County, free, no-appointment-needed vaccine clinics will be available through Public Health in various locations for those who need the vaccine or are eligible for a booster. Though most are in Santa Maria — where the case rate is high and the vaccination rate low — clinics in South County are as follows:
• Carpinteria Middle School, 5351 Carp Ave., Thu., Dec. 9, 4-7 p.m.
• Isla Vista Youth Project, 5679 Hollister, Wed., Dec. 15, 4-7 p.m.
• El Camino Elementary School, 5020 San Simeon Dr., Thu., Dec. 16, 4-7 p.m.
• SBCC Student Services, 721 Cliff Dr., Wed., Dec. 22, 9 a.m.-noon
Available doses are as follows:
• Pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine for 5-11 year olds
• First and second Pfizer doses for 12-17 year olds
• Booster doses of Pfizer and Moderna for those over the age of 18 if it’s been six months since their second shot
• The Johnson & Johnson single-dose and booster shots for 18 and older.
All the clinics are posted at “December Vaccine Clinic Locations” at publichealthsbc.org/vaccine. By-appointment vaccine shots are also available through California’s MyTurn.ca.gov and area pharmacies and medical practices. Each requires an online set of questions; county residents without internet access can call 2-1-1 for help making an appointment.
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