All three people were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and two had recently traveled abroad, health officials said.
Oregon now joins 32 other states with confirmed cases of the recently identified variant, which research indicates could be more transmissible than even the delta variant. Omicron’s emergence has fueled concerns of another COVID-19 surge nationally, with Oregon still seeing elevated hospitalizations from the delta wave.
“We recognize this news is concerning to many people,” state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said in a statement. “However, if history is our guide, we do know that even if a vaccine doesn’t target a specific variant, the strong immune response you get from being fully vaccinated can still be highly protective against severe disease from all COVID-19 variants.”
Officials in South Africa first discovered the variant Nov. 24 and its eventual detection in Oregon had been expected. It’s too early to know with any certainty how fast the variant could spread, the severity of omicron COVID-19 cases, or how effectively the variant evades a vaccinated person’s immune system’s defenses.
Recent research out of Great Britain indicates the variant is more contagious than the delta variant, according to The New York Times, with someone infected with the omicron variant about three times as likely to pass it as a person infected with the delta variant.
Researchers have also found that vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic COVID-19 cases was “significantly lower” for those infected with the omicron variant, compared to the delta variant. They also found that booster doses substantially raised protection.
“Our findings support maximizing coverage with third doses of vaccine in highly vaccinated populations,” the researchers wrote. The U.K. Health Security Agency study has not been peer reviewed.
The omicron variant has far more mutations than other variants, particularly in parts of the virus that the vaccines teach the body’s immune system to identify and fight. While existing vaccines were not engineered specifically for omicron, federal and state officials are recommending unvaccinated people get shots and fully vaccinated people get boosters.
“It was only a matter of time before we identified the first case of the Omicron variant in Oregon,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “Get vaccinated, get your booster, and wear a mask. That’s the key to saving lives and keeping our businesses, schools, and communities open.”
The Multnomah County resident who tested positive for the omicron variant, in their 20s, was tested for COVID-19 Dec. 7 and had recently traveled to Canada, health officials said. One of the Washington County residents, in his or her 30s, had recently traveled to Mexico and was tested Dec. 9. The other Washington County resident is in their 20s and was tested Dec. 9.
Oregon Health & Science University got the results of the genomic sequencing identifying the variant back Monday afternoon, health officials said. Oregon ranks 11th nationally in its rate of sequencing specimens.
The omicron threat comes as coronavirus case numbers have declined in Oregon, following a record-setting delta variant surge that peaked in September. The number of people hospitalized with COVID stands at about 400, down from the peak of nearly 1,200 in September, but still well above most of the pandemic.
Washington, California and Idaho all reported omicron cases earlier this month.
— Fedor Zarkhin