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7 Omicron COVID cases identified on University of Arizona campus

Seven cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been identified on the University of Arizona campus, researchers said Tuesday morning.

Researchers with the UA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology identified the cases through a program that uses saline gargle tests, said UA virology expert Michael Worobey.

Worobey, the head of the UA's College of Science's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, wrote on Twitter that among seven recent samples from campus tests that were positive for COVID and then genetically sequenced, all were determined to be Omicron. Researchers identified Omicron in the samples within 10 hours around 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Worobey said. 

Last October, the UA added the test—which relies on a simple saltwater rinse that is gargled for about 10 seconds and then spit into a vial—to quickly identify COVID-19 cases on campus. The UA said that officials have already begun contact tracing and notifying those who were in contact with those who have Omicron, he said. 

Worobey wrote on Twitter that Omicron is a "fast-moving variant" adding that it was "safe to assume it is already spreading quickly." 

"Let's all do what we can now to slow its spread," he said. 

The UA has pushed hard for on-campus testing, pushing students to get tested through an incentive program and requiring staff to get tested routinely. 

During a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, said that Pima County was expanding its own testing to look for Omicron cases, after a case here was confirmed on Dec. 16.

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The supervisors on Tuesday instituted a requirement that people wear face masks when indoors in all public places county-wide, citing the recent surge in cases and the arrival of Omicron infections here.

The Arizona Department of Health Services said that by Monday, genome sequencing had identified 30 cases of Omicron in Arizona, or about 1.63 percent of the samples tested. 

Data from the CDC Tuesday show that Omicron has become the dominant strain of COVID-19, making up 73.2 percent of cases over last week. The older strain, Delta, has dropped to about 27 percent of cases, while the original strain of COVID-19 is fewer than 1 percent of cases. 

In mid-November, researchers in South Africa identified the new strain of COVID-19 through the country's robust surveillance system, and within days, the World Health Organization classified it as B.1.1.529 or Omicron, and called the virus a "variant of concern." 

The previous version of COVID-19 was tagged as a variant of concern was the Delta variant, which became widespread and dramatically increased COVID-19 cases worldwide. WHO officials have followed the Greek alphabet for new viral variants, but decided to skip Nu and Xi out of concerns that the names would be confusing.

At least 44 countries have instituted new travel bans, including the U.S., which blocked travel from South Africa and seven other south African countries to the U.S. Despite that effort, Omicron cases began appearing the United States in at least 32 states. 

"I've NEVER seen anything like the speed of Omicron," said Dr. Tom Frieden, who served as CDC director under President Barack Obama. Frieden wrote on Twitter that Omicron is "as infectious as measles spreading in a non-immune population, with a much shorter incubation time therefore much faster doubling time." 

Researchers use a figure known as R0, pronounced "R naught' to measure a disease’s transmission rate. 

According to a study released in October, the original strain of COVID-19 had an R0 value of 2.79. In other words, one person with COVID-19 could infect 2-3 people. The Delta variant has a R0 value that's twice as high, and there are signs that Omicron's R0 might be as high as 10. 

Officials push hard for vaccinations against Omicron's rise

Officials with ADHS continued to urged Arizonans to get their COVID-19 booster dose as soon as possible because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, and the "potential for more breakthrough cases among vaccinated people." 

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"Those who have yet to be vaccinated also should act now to get the protection offered by safe, free, and highly effective COVID-19 vaccines," said Steve Elliot, a spokesman for ADHS. 

"There is every indication that vaccines will continue offering significant protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19 as this extraordinarily contagious variant spreads," said Don Herrington, the interim director of ADHS. "Boosters are important for everyone who is eligible, but they are especially important for older people who are more prone to severe illness from breakthrough infections."

Boosters are "strongly recommended" for everyone 18 and older who have received their Moderna or Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago, and at least two months after the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine. Boosters are also recommended for kids 16 and 17 if its been at least six months after the Pfizer vaccine.

ADHS said that about three-quarters of eligible Arizonans have yet to get a booster dose. "Of greatest concern among that group are the 56 percent of those 65 and older who are eligible but have yet to get a booster," wrote Elliot. "Meanwhile, about one in three eligible Arizonans has yet to be vaccinated." 

Officials warned that the rapid spread of Omicron could "further strain hospitals already struggling with large numbers of COVID-19 patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated."

Overall, 68.6 percent of those eligible to be vaccinated have received both doses, though children under 5 cannot yet receive a COVID-19 vaccination. 

"This is an especially bad time to allow misinformation, political views, or stubbornness to keep you from getting vaccinated," said Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. Surgeon General and a special adviser to the governor's office. "Any hospital will tell you that the vast majority of those in intensive care and dying from COVID-19 are not vaccinated."

As of October, unvaccinated individuals in Arizona were 15.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the fully vaccinated and 3.9 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19, ADHS said. 

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Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Michael Worobey demonstrates the swish and gargle test.

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