Chicago officials are preparing for the new omicron COVID variant, though they said there are still many questions to be answered about the emerging variant of concern.
In a statement Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city is "very engaged in the heightened discussions regarding the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, particularly with our federal partners."
"At this point, there are many questions which scientists across the world, and at the Chicago Department of Public Health, are actively working to address all while closely monitoring this strain," the statement read. "While that work continues, we must as a city, and importantly as individuals, continue to follow the public health guidance: get vaccinated, and if vaccinated, get your booster; wear a mask indoors and when you're around other people; and if you are feeling sick, stay home to save lives. The unvaccinated remain the most at risk to themselves and others so please get vaccinated as soon as possible."
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Similarly, Cook County's health department said on Friday it was watching the variant "very carefully."
"We don't know if the variant has reached the United States, but given the global concern about the virus, it is more important than ever to continue to follow public health recommendations: Mask Up, Wash Your Hands, Stay Physically Distant, and most importantly, get vaccinated and get your booster as soon as you are eligible," said Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead and senior medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health. "The longer people do not get vaccinated, the risk of deadlier variants increases."
The global risk of omicron is "very high," the World Health Organization said Monday, as more countries reported cases of the variant that has led to worldwide concern that there is more pandemic suffering ahead.
Despite the global alarm, there is still little understanding about the variant and how virulent it may be.
The World Health Organization announced last week that omircon has been classified as a "variant of concern."
WHO Health Emergencies Programme COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said early evidence on omicron, known by the technical term B.1.1.529, shows that the variant has a large number of mutations, some of which have concerning characteristics.
Omicron has also shown to have an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID and recovered could be more subject to catching it again with this variant.
The leading infectious disease expert for the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, added that public health experts are trying to find answers to questions such as whether the omicron variant causes more severe illness and whether it can evade protection from vaccines or treatments.
"It also has a bunch of mutations that would suggest it could evade the protection, for example, of monoclonal antibodies and perhaps even convalescent plasma for people who have been infected and recovered, and possibly vaccine. These are all maybes, but the suggestion is enough," Fauci said.
The quick spread of the variant is also concerning, Fauci said.
"It seems to have really spread rather rapidly in South Africa, even though the numbers are relatively small, its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection and even people who have been vaccinated make us say, 'This is something you've got to pay really close attention to, and be prepared for something that's serious,'" Fauci explained. "It may not turn out that way, but you really want to be ahead of it, and that's the reason why we're doing what we're doing."
Symptoms connected to the new variant have been described as "extremely mild" by the doctor who first raised concerns over the new strain. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told the BBC Sunday that she started to see patients earlier this month presenting with "unusual symptoms" that differed slightly from those associated with the delta variant, which is the most virulent strain of the virus to date and globally dominant.
"It actually started with a male patient who's around the age of 33 ... and he said to me that he's just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he's got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache," she told the BBC.
The patient didn't have a sore throat, she said, but more of a "scratchy throat" but no cough or loss of taste or smell — symptoms that have been associated with previous strains of the coronavirus.
Coetzee said she tested the male patient for COVID, and he was positive, as was his family, and then said she saw more patients that day presenting with the same kinds of symptoms that differed from the delta variant.
Other patients she had seen so far with the omicron variant had also experienced what she described as "extremely mild" symptoms, and she added that her colleagues had noted similar cases.
"What we are seeing clinically in South Africa — and remember I'm at the epicenter of this where I'm practicing — is extremely mild, for us [these are] mild cases. We haven't admitted anyone, I've spoken to other colleagues of mine and they give the same picture."
The extent of the actual spread of the omicron variant around the world, however, still remains unclear as countries discover new cases each day.
Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence.
Canada’s health minister says the country's first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
The U.S. has yet to identify any cases but Fauci and other experts have warned that it could already have made it to America.
"I would not be surprised if it is. We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases that they've noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over," Fauci said.
Effective Monday, the U.S. has restricted travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
Many countries are introducing such bans, though they go against the advice of the WHO, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.
Moderna's Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said Sunday the vaccine maker could roll out a reformulated vaccine against the omicron coronavirus variant early next year.
The vaccine maker "mobilized hundreds" of workers starting early Thursday morning, on Thanksgiving, to start studying the new variant, the company said in a statement.
Current vaccines could provide some protection, depending on how long ago a person was injected, Burton said. Still, he said unvaccinated people should get vaccinated or receive their booster shots, if eligible.
It's not clear whether new formulations will be needed, or if current COVID vaccinations will provide protection against the new variant that has begun to spread around the globe.
"We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks, but the remarkable thing about the mRNA vaccines, Moderna platform is that we can move very fast," Burton said on BBC's "Andrew Marr Show."
"If we have to make a brand new vaccine I think that's going to be early 2022 before that's really going to be available in large quantities," the Moderna chief added.