As state researchers continue to search for the omicron variant of the coronavirus and are prioritizing testing travelers, Washington health leaders are reminding the public not to panic.
There have been no detections of omicron in Washington, though the White House announced Wednesday the country's first case of the new variant was identified in someone in California.
The person, a traveler from South Africa who returned on Nov. 22, was vaccinated but hadn't received a booster shot and was experiencing mild symptoms. The person tested positive for the virus on Monday.
"Don't be surprised if you get a positive case of omicron variant here in the state of Washington," state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah said Wednesday after the California omicron case was confirmed. "Again, not a time to panic. It is what it is, and we need to continue to emphasize those tools and strategies, most importantly ... that people are getting tested."
State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said Wednesday it could be weeks before scientists learn more information about the transmissibility of the variant and how it holds up against vaccines, but that in the meantime, Washington's genotyping system continues to plug away.
"The biggest concern we have about any variant is: Is it more infectious? And that is the concern for omicron," Lindquist said.
The state is focusing on contact and case investigation around anyone who's recently traveled from a country with confirmed omicron cases, in addition to using specific testing methodologies to pick out the variant, he said.
PCR tests, for example, generally look for three genes in order to detect COVID-19. In the omicron variant, one of the genes — the spike gene, or S gene — isn't detected by PCR tests, so virologists can use that trait to help identify potential omicron cases. "S dropout" testing has helped speed up detection rates for omicron, according to the World Health Organization.
"We are asking any lab in Washington that does this S dropout testing to send all samples to the state," Lindquist said.
Little information is available about how the first U.S. detection of omicron might affect travel restrictions and holiday plans, but Shah said Wednesday that vaccinations, testing and booster shots will help limit further policy changes.
As of Wednesday, nearly 81% of Washingtonians ages 12 and older have received at least their first dose of the vaccine. More than 1 million people have also gotten either a booster shot or third dose.
"Vaccines and other tools are incredibly effective against the variants we know are already in our state," Shah said. " ... It's important for us to remember that if you have had COVID, it appears your protection is one, short-lived, but also more narrow than if you have vaccine coverage."