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First case of omicron variant reported in Utah

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The first confirmed case of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant has been found in Utah just ahead of the busy holiday season.

The Utah Department of Health announced Friday afternoon that the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 was identified for the first time in the state.

Medical experts performing genetic sequencing at the Utah Public Health Laboratory discovered the variant in a sample from an older adult who lives in southwest Utah and recently returned from South Africa.

According to the laboratory, the person is fully vaccinated and experienced only mild symptoms.

With the delta variant sticking around and omicron on its way in, is it safe to travel and gather with loved ones this holiday season?

Andy Pavia is chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital. He said Friday the short answer is “yes” for people who are taking all the recommended steps to guard against getting COVID.

“If you use other sensible precautions and you've had vaccine and boosting, you can really begin to venture out pretty safely," Pavia said. "By reasonable precautions, I mean, you still should be wearing a mask in indoor settings where you're going to be around unvaccinated people or crowds. When you're at your relative's house and everyone's vaccinated and boosted, I personally would take the mask off as long as they've been reasonably careful as well.”

The emergence of the omicron variant has spurred a new round of pandemic-related restrictions around the world. Despite reports that it’s much more contagious than the delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s still unknown how efficiently the omicron variant spreads from person to person.

According to a CDC statement, “Analysis of the changes in the spike protein indicate that the Omicron variant is likely to have increased transmission compared to the original virus, but it is difficult to infer if it is more transmissible than Delta.”

The agency also said it is unclear if the new variant causes a more severe form of COVID-19.

Pavia said that initial data from South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified, indicate that monoclonal treatments may be less effective against it.

“It's also a pretty good prediction that our vaccines will provide some protection, probably a very good level of protection, against hospitalization or death, and probably will be less effective at preventing breakthrough milder infections.”

The Utah Department of Health said vaccines and booster shots still offer the best protection against COVID-19. The department recommends people get tested immediately if they feel sick. That can allow for treatment with monoclonal antibodies, and potentially with antiviral pills that are awaiting federal authorization.

Pavia said there are still 1.4 million Utahns eligible for the vaccine who have not received it. He said it was important for people not to wait to get booster shots or vaccinations, especially children.

“When we think about our kids, let's realize that the holidays are coming up and they need to get their second dose in to start to have really robust protection. So if you want that peace of mind of having your kids protected as they go out on Christmas vacation, get together with family and friends, then now is the time to get started on a vaccine and you really don't have much time to waste.”

More information about finding a vaccine is available at vaccines.gov.

Reporter Alexander Cramer contributed to this story.