Maine will keep an eye out for a new and concerning COVID-19 variant, but it otherwise does not appear to be treating it differently than past strains as world health officials worry about its potential for increased transmission.
The omicron strain has not been detected in the U.S., but it may be just a matter of time with Canada reporting at least three cases by Monday. How it affects the state is largely based on how effective vaccines are against it and how contagious it proves to be.
Other variants before the delta variant have had limited effects on the pandemic’s course in Maine. Its potential arrival could worsen the current high case numbers Maine is seeing going into winter or prolong a surge that has been ongoing since the summer.
Here is what you might need to know about the latest variant and how Maine is prepared to respond.
Where is the variant so far?
The variant was first detected in South Africa last week and has since been found in 16 different countries, including Canada. While it has not been detected here yet, public health officials have said it is possible omicron has already arrived.
The delta variant, the more contagious strain of the virus detected thus far, took its time arriving in Maine. It was first detected in India in December 2020 before being found in Great Britain and then the United States. There were four cases when it was first found in Maine this June. It went from only 3.6 percent of the Maine cases sequenced that month to nearly 90 percent in July. Since then, it has virtually become the sole strain here.
What is different about this variant?
Is it not clear yet how the variant will behave because so few cases have been detected. But the World Health Organization declared it a variant of concern last week because omicron has several mutations that could affect how transmissible or how severe the disease it causes could be. Those mutations also indicate a higher risk of reinfection from the variant as compared to others, meaning it could spread more quickly among the population.
It could take several weeks before that becomes clear. Initial information shows hospitalization rates of COVID-19 patients are increasing in South Africa, the WHO noted, but that could be due to rising cases in general.
What is Maine doing to prepare?
There is no course change for now. Gov. Janet Mills said on Monday she had directed the Maine CDC to “closely track” the new variant and its potential effects. She reiterated the importance of masks indoors and getting vaccinated or a booster shot if eligible.
If omicron is found here, it will likely be due to the state’s genome sequencing partnership with the Bar Harbor-based Jackson Laboratory, which analyzes a sample of positive tests detected in Maine to watch for variants. The lab is already set up to detect the new variant, said Maine Center for Disease Control Prevention spokesperson Robert Long.
Nationally, U.S. officials have banned travel from eight African countries in an attempt to slow the variant’s spread. It is not clear if further restrictions are coming.
How has Maine responded to variants in the past?
The delta variant came when cases were relatively low in Maine as the Democratic governor was winding down a 15-month state of emergency that she used to enshrine economic restrictions earlier in the pandemic.
As it has gone on to drive record cases here, she has repeatedly said the reintroduction of those measures — such as business capacity limits or mask mandates — would not be useful at this stage of the pandemic. Instead, Mills and other governors have urged the public to get vaccinated. Earlier this month, Maine expanded the eligibility of booster shots to everyone a day ahead of the federal government’s expansion.
Mills made Maine one of the first states to adopt a vaccine requirement for health care workers that led to legal challenges that have so far failed. It only went as far as adopting federal recommendations for when masks should be worn indoors as the delta variant began to drive another surge in Maine that has yet to let up.