These States Could Be at High Risk of an Omicron Surge, Virus Expert Warns

Some places could be more susceptible to a spike as the latest COVID variant spreads.

The recently discovered Omicron variant continues to spread quickly across the globe as scientists race to find more answers about how much more contagious or dangerous it may be than its predecessor. As of Dec. 7, the viral offshoot has been reported in dozens of countries and 18 states, according to The New York Times. But even though the latest variant has only arrived in the U.S., one virus expert has expressed concern that certain states could be at high risk of an Omicron surge in the coming weeks. Read on to see which areas may be most vulnerable.

RELATED: The WHO Just Sent This Urgent Warning About Omicron to People Over 60.

States in the South with low vaccination rates and high Delta exposure could be at high risk of an Omicron surge.

cityscape photo of a roundabout and buildings in Tampa, Florida at sunset

During an appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box on Dec. 6, Scott Gottlieb, MD, former Food & Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, discussed the potential threats that the latest viral offshoot posed to the U.S. While he noted that important data is still needed, he pointed out one area of the U.S. that might be particularly threatened by its arrival.

"I worry about states that have low vaccination rates, high Delta exposure, and are confident right now—and perhaps overconfident because their prevalence has declined. That describes a lot of states in the South right now, which I think could be vulnerable to Omicron because they're relying a lot on Delta immunity," he warned. "They've seen prevalence really collapse because of that Delta immunity because they've had such a big wave of infection, but Omicron seems to pierce that."

Delta is still dominant, but the new variant may elude the immunity previous exposure has given people.

A senior woman getting a nasal swab COVID-19 test from a healthcare worker wearing full protective gear

Gottlieb explained that while most attention and concern appears to be turned towards the latest variant, a familiar foe is still responsible for the vast majority of domestic cases. "Omicron isn't here at any appreciable level. There's not a widespread community transmission of this virus now at all, so their absolute risk of contracting it is exceedingly low in the United States, and we have good detection, so we would be picking it up," he said.

"Delta is the immediate risk. [But] the tragic thing is there's a lot of people who are going to get infected with Delta even still, and they may find that the immunity they acquired through that Delta infection isn't going to be protective against Omicron," he warned.

RELATED: These Are the Symptoms of the Omicron Variant, South African Doctor Says.

Evidence from South Africa now supports the theory that vaccinations may be key in stopping Omicron.

A scientist completing a study in a lab looking into a microscope while wearing full protective gear

The former FDA head still cautioned that more information was needed before the dangers could adequately be assessed but explained that current vaccines could play an essential part in preventing another major surge. "We'll know more in a couple of weeks, but based on what we know now, the vaccines still appear to be protective against both Delta and this new variant. So there's still a window to both get boosted and get vaccinated, and probably getting more people vaccinated—if this does end up spreading here—could become much more important," he said.

Gottlieb cited a study from a hospital in South Africa released over the weekend that found out of 166 admitted patients, 38 tested positive for COVID. Most of them were incidental discoveries, meaning the patients were admitted to the hospital for surgeries, injuries, or other reasons and had not sought out care due to severe COVID-related illness. He noted that nine of the patients who did develop COVID pneumonia were all in stable condition and unvaccinated.

"We have clear evidence now that the people who are getting infected in South Africa are people who are getting reinfected after a Delta infection," he said. "So far, we haven't seen analytical work on the vaccines: that should be coming, so we'll have a better sense of how well two doses of vaccine—which is largely what's been used in this market—is protecting against this new variant. And then we're going to have to look at the neutralization data and see if there's a delta between the three doses and the two doses. I suspect there will be and that the three doses [are] going to provide more robust protection against this," he predicted.

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Other health officials agree that getting more people boosted and vaccinated could help fight Omicron.

A senior woman receiving a COVID-19 vaccine or booster from a healthcare worker

Other health officials have raised concerns about Omicron while still focusing on the current problem of rising cases. During an appearance on ABC's This Week on Dec. 5, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, reported that the still-dominant Delta variant causes 99.9 percent of all U.S. COVID cases. "We have so many things that we can do about Delta, including getting vaccinated, including getting boosted," she said.

But despite the arrival of another viral foe, the CDC chief also expressed optimism that we could successfully fight the viral offshoot with the shots already available to us. "I think the next six months really depend on how we mobilize together to do the things that we know work," she predicted. "We know from a vaccine standpoint that the more mutations a single variant has, the more immunity you really need to have in order to combat that variant, which is why right now we're really pushing to get more people vaccinated and more people boosted to really boost that immunity in every single individual."

"We're really hopeful that our vaccines will work in a way that even if they don't prevent disease entirely, prevent infection entirely, that they can work to protect severe disease and keep people out of the hospital," she added.

RELATED: 90 Percent of People Hospitalized With Omicron Have This in Common.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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