As the latest troubling coronavirus variant, known as omicron, was detected in the United States for the first time Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan said health officials are taking steps to prepare for its likely arrival in Maryland.
The state is expanding its efforts to sequence samples from positive coronavirus cases to detect for omicron and other variants by buying more reagents for the state public health lab and extending sequencing contracts with the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University.
And recognizing that omicron has quickly hopscotched across several continents in recent weeks, the state is sending rapid coronavirus tests to the international terminal at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, which sees 7,000 international travelers each week.
“Our team is closely monitoring the situation. We are taking nothing for granted. We are taking every precaution,” Hogan said during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis on Wednesday.
“While many are understandably concerned about the omicron variant, I urge Marylanders not to panic. This is not the first variant,” the Republican governor said. “We cannot become complacent, and we do need to remain vigilant.”
Though much remains unknown about omicron, including whether it makes people sicker or spreads more easily, Hogan said he hopes the state won’t need to return to more restrictive public health measures, such as stay-at-home orders or business restrictions.
“We are not intending to return to any of those measures here in the state of Maryland,” said Hogan, noting that after 21 months of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, people are “somewhat fatigued.”
Testing, vaccination and personal responsibility will be key to battling the new variant, as well as future variants that inevitably will come along, Hogan said.
“While many are understandably concerned about the omicron variant, I urge Marylanders not to panic. This is not the first variant,” Hogan said.
It’s possible, Hogan said, that scientists learn that omicron is not terribly severe. But we need to be prepared, he said.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find out over the next few weeks,” Hogan said. “Right now, we’re doing everything that we can to prepare for a potential situation.”
Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said Hogan’s message was largely on point, but neglected to address masking. He described masking as “paramount” for mitigating the risk of virus spread, particularly if scientists find omicron is more transmissible and vaccines are less effective against it.
“I wholeheartedly agree that testing and vaccination are important steps in identifying and mitigating the impact of omicron and the currently dominant delta variant,” Sehgal said. “But it’s likely omicron is in more places today than we have detected yet and it’s inevitable there will be a case in Maryland.”
Sehgal said masks and vaccines perform different functions.
“Your vaccine will keep you out of the hospital, but the mask will keep the virus out of your lungs,” Sehgal said. “Regardless of the variant, a highly filtering mask will do that.”
Maryland officials believe the state’s better-than-average rate of vaccinations — nearly 77% of residents have at least one shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 70% of the nation overall — could help it weather the latest variant.
Omicron has been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization because it has caused a spike in cases in some areas, including South Africa, where it was discovered. Omicron has a significant number of mutations compared with previous variants, and scientists are working to learn whether those mutations affect how sick it makes people, how quickly it spreads and how well vaccines work against it.
Last week, the state distributed half a million at-home rapid test kits to local health departments, libraries and community centers.
“If you’re feeling sick and think you’re coming down with something, get a test. If you’re traveling and coming home, get a test,” Hogan said. “It’s simple.”
And while testing and sequencing are key to detecting the new variant, Hogan reiterated that vaccinations are the best way to prevent serious disease and hospitalizations. He urged all Marylanders to get vaccinated or to get a booster dose. Adults age 18 and older are eligible for boosters if it’s been six months since being vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or if it’s been two months since receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Hogan noted that Marylanders who get a booster dose within the next 10 days will have maximum protection by Christmas. He said people can proceed with holiday celebrations but should be mindful of the virus and take steps such as testing before and after traveling, wearing masks around strangers and in crowded places, and staying home if they feel ill.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, the state’s top public health official, said that tests being used in Maryland will be accurate in detecting coronavirus cases in people who contract the omicron variant. Samples of positive tests are sent for further testing to identify which variants are circulating in Maryland, Chan said.
In the face of omicron, Marylanders can take steps to stay healthy, Chan said.
“There are things people can do, and I can’t emphasize this enough that vaccination remains our most important tool to protect ourselves and our families against COVID-19,” she said.
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Marylanders also need to get their booster shots when they reach the time frame for them, Chan said.
But even as Maryland waits for omicron, other coronavirus variants continue to sicken residents. As of Wednesday, nearly 700 people were being treated for COVID-19 in Maryland hospitals, a number that’s been rising the past two weeks.
An additional 1,142 new cases were reported Wednesday, with the state’s seven-day average positivity rate reaching 5.13%. One month ago, the positivity rate was less than 3%.
At a news conference Wednesday, Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said that November has seen an increase in the number of children testing positive for COVID-19.
She said that daily case totals rose in the state during November, about 40% of all cases in Baltimore city were recorded in residents 19 years old or younger.
“Again, this is our unvaccinated population,” she said, adding that the city is averaging about 140 cases a day in recent weeks.
She also echoed Chan’s sentiments, saying that “now is not the time to relax” in the wake of the first positive test of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the United States.