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CDPHE: State using multiple techniques to monitor for the omicron variant

Posted at 9:05 AM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 11:05:39-05

DENVER — In a press conference Tuesday, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials said the state is on the lookout for the omicron variant.

As of Tuesday, the omicron variant has not been detected in Colorado or the United States. However, officials say they are prepared and will detect the variant once it makes its way to the Centennial State.

Dr. Emily Travanty, a state lab director, says the state is using three different strategies to look for the omicron variant - diagnostic testing, clinical sequencing and wastewater sequencing surveillance.

Diagnostic testing

Many COVID-19 tests in Colorado, including those used at the state lab and at a majority of community testing sites, are performed using the ThermoFisher TaqPath Combo test. The state has prioritized these tests for sequencing at the state lab.

Clinical sequencing

The genetic makeup of a virus is constantly changing, and COVID-19 is no exception.

Each variant has a different genetic sequence. For example, the alpha variant of COVID-19 has a different sequence compared to the delta variant of COVID-19.

The state has updated its procedures in order to identify the omicron variant and its specific genetic sequence in patient samples.

Wastewater sequencing surveillance

Officials are turning to wastewater in order to monitor for the omicron variant.

Rachel Jervis, an epidemiologist and speaker during Tuesday's press conference, said almost 50% of people with COVID-19 will shed some virus in their stool, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms. Scientists are then able to test for COVID-19 and variants within wastewater.

By testing wastewater, officials are able to see what is spreading within an entire community compared to diagnostic testing, which looks at what a specific individual is infected with.

Through the state's voluntary program, wastewater utilities submit two samples per week. Those samples are then tested for COVID-19 and genetic markers of variants.

So far, there are 21 participants in the program.

Omicron latest

As of 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 30, the omicron variant has not been detected in Colorado or in the United States.

Not much is known about this new variant. It was first identified in South Africa on Nov. 24, and deemed a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 26.

Many questions remain regarding the omicron variant, including its spectrum of illness and severity. More data is needed in order to answer those questions. Scientists believe we will learn more over the next few weeks.

At this time, officials say the precautions taken throughout the pandemic will work for this new variant. CDPHE officials are encouraging Coloradans to mask up when indoors, maintain social distance and get vaccinated. Those who are eligible are also encouraged to get a booster shot.