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Polis urges vaccinations, booster shots after first omicron variant case reported in Colorado

The governor said the new variant does not appear to be a huge cause for concern at this time, but urged vaccinations and booster shots for all eligible Coloradans.

DENVER — Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said the presence of the new variant does not appear to be a huge cause for concern at this time, and that the response strategy is the same as when the delta variant became widespread.

Polis provided an update on Colorado's response to the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday afternoon after the state's first case of the omicron variant was reported.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) confirmed the first case was identified in an Arapahoe County woman who had recently returned from a tourism trip to several counties in southern Africa via Denver International Airport.

However, he urged Coloradans to get vaccinated and boosted, noting that research shows efficacy wanes around six months after receiving the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"When the pandemic began two years ago, no one knew exactly what this virus would bring," Polis said. "The delta variant wave came just as we thought we turned the tide in Colorado, and now we're facing a new challenge. That's why we need to double down on what we know works. That means getting vaccinated and, if you're eligible, please get boosted."

Polis said there are currently about 1,400 COVID patients hospitalized in Colorado, which leaves occupancy higher than they are usually accustomed to dealing with.

"There is capacity, if you need care you will get it," Polis said. "But it is very challenging at these levels."

During the most recent surge that had just started showing signs of a downward trend, Polis said he was making arrangements to increase hospital capacity by about 500 beds, and those plans are still in the works.

Polis said the state is less concerned about exceeding hospital capacity compared to two weeks ago, but the unpredictably of COVID-19 and the addition of the new variant makes it hard to predict the course Colorado will take over the coming weeks and months.

"When this virus throws spitball after screwball, who knows where we will be in two weeks, especially after the holiday gatherings," Polis said.

Anyone who would prefer calling to arrange a booster shot, or vaccination for a child between the ages of 5 and 11, can contact 877-268-2926.

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The Arapahoe County woman who tested positive for the omicron variant is fully vaccinated but has not received a booster. CDPHE said she is experiencing minor symptoms and recovering in isolation at her home.

The case was identified following a positive test result through routine case investigation by Tri-County Health Department, and CDPHE epidemiologists flagged it for follow-up because of recent travel history.

CDPHE recommends anyone coming back from international travel should be get tested three to five days after their return.

Colorado is the third state to detect the omicron variant, according to CDPHE. The first omicron variant case in the U.S. was confirmed Wednesday in California, and Minnesota was the second state to confirm a case earlier on Thursday.

The omicron variant was recently detected in November in the region of southern Africa, and CDPHE said is may be responsible for an increase in COVID cases in that area.

While more research is needed, CDPHE said it appears omicron may be more transmissible or immune response is not as effective due to a some mutations in the spike proteins of the virus. 

However, early anecdotal evidence from doctors in southern Africa does indicate the infections caused by the omicron variant result in mild symptoms, but more research is needed according to CDPHE State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.

CDPHE said it has multiple monitoring programs in place to detect variants in Colorado, which includes wastewater testing and genetic sequencing of test samples by state, private and commercial labs.

Polis said he doesn't believe there is widespread community transmission of the omicron variant in Colorado at this time because it has not appeared in wastewater testing or in the roughly 15% of tests that are sequenced.

"If it was prevalent we would know, that does not mean it's non-existent," Polis said.

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