Prior COVID Infection Does Not Protect Patients from Omicron Variant, Chicago-Area Doctor Says

Coronavirus cases in Illinois have been connected to the alpha, beta, delta and gamma variants

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As the COVID-19 omicron variant continues to pop up across the U.S., health officials are working to determine whether a prior coronavirus infection or vaccine series will protect from the virus.

Dr. Richard Novak, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Illinois at Chicago, warned that people who contracted COVID in the past are likely not protected from the omicron variant.

"New reports from south Africa today suggest prior infection provides no protection from this variant," Novak said. "It is able to evade the immune response."

Because antibodies created from the coronavirus may not protect people, Novak, along with other health officials are urging vaccinations.

"I think this is a wake up call for people to get vaccine and for those who are vaccinated to get their boosters," Novak said. "I think this is evidence the virus will be with us for a while or be part of the fabric of our society and we will have to continue to fight to stay one step ahead of it."

Though officials are not certain how much protection the vaccines provide against the virus, Novak said people vaccinated against COVID have experienced a milder case than those unvaccinated.

At least eight U.S. states now have at least 20 cases of the highly mutated omicron Covid-19 variant after Nebraska, Maryland and Pennsylvania all confirmed infections Friday. 

The news comes one day after 10 cases were confirmed in Minnesota, Colorado, New York, Hawaii and California, which reported the nation's first case of the variant in a patient in San Francisco on Wednesday and tenth case in Los Angeles on Thursday. 

Though omicron has not yet been discovered in Illinois, a total of 31,384 coronavirus cases are active across the state from the alpha, beta, delta and gamma variants, according to the latest data from the Illinois Department of Public Health/

Here's a breakdown, as of Wednesday:

Delta (B.1.617.2): 18,087
Delta (AY.1): 48
Delta (AY.2): 30
Delta (AY.3): 3,357
Alpha (B.1.1.7): 7,063
Beta (B.1.351): 112
Gamma (P.1): 2,687

Earlier this week, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said she expects the omicron variant will eventually hit Illinois.

"We knew it was only a matter of time before the Omicron variant was identified in the U.S. and we anticipate there will be cases in Illinois," the Illinois Department of Public Health posted to social media Wednesday.

Ezike said the state continues to encourage all Illinois residents age 5 and older to receive the COVID vaccine, wear a mask, get tested for the virus and maintain social distancing in light of the new variant.

IDPH is continuing to perform sequencing to detect omicron in Illinois, according to the post, noting that state officials renewed their request for hospitals and labs to provide specimens for testing.

The first Midwest case of the omicron COVID variant was confirmed in Minnesota, the state's health department said Thursday, via a specimen from a resident "with recent travel history to New York City."

The omicron variant was found through the health department's variant surveillance program, health officials said.

The person with the variant, according to Minnesota's health department, is an adult male resident of Hennepin County who had been vaccinated. His symptoms "have resolved."

According to health officials, the person developed mild symptoms on Nov. 22 and was tested for COVID on Nov. 24. He reported traveling to New York City and attended the Anime NYC 2021 convention from Nov. 19-21 at the Javits Center.

The health department said Minnesota epidemiologists will continue to investigate alongside New York City and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This news is concerning, but it is not a surprise," Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. "We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world. Minnesotans know what to do to keep each other safe now — get the vaccine, get tested, wear a mask indoors, and get a booster. Together, we can fight this virus and help keep Minnesotans safe."

Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said the new finding "underscores the importance of continued efforts by all Minnesotans to limit the spread of COVID-19 in any form."

“We still have more to learn about Omicron, but the most important thing we can do right now is to use the tools we have available to make it as hard as possible for this virus to spread,” Commissioner Malcolm said. “In addition to vaccination and boosters, we can slow the spread of this variant and all COVID-19 variants by using the tried-and-true prevention methods of wearing masks, staying home when sick, and getting tested when appropriate.”

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