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caption: Registered nurse Tina Nguyen administers a Covid-19 test on Friday, November 20, 2020, at the International Community Health Services drive thru testing site on 8th Avenue South in Seattle's International District.
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Registered nurse Tina Nguyen administers a Covid-19 test on Friday, November 20, 2020, at the International Community Health Services drive thru testing site on 8th Avenue South in Seattle's International District.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Omicron's arrival in Washington state is imminent. Experts say they're prepared

With the emergence of the new Covid-19 variant, omicron, doctors in Washington state are on the lookout for cases that may appear here. The variant has caused concern around the globe, but has not yet been detected in the United States.

A lot remains unknown about omicron and how it compares to the highly transmissible delta variant that fueled huge spikes in Covid cases and hospitalizations in recent months.

However, one thing state officials are confident about is that they’ll know when omicron arrives in Washington.

State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said there’s a system in place to detect new variants. It involves private, public and university labs sequencing the genome of a portion of positive samples from the community to monitor which variants are present in the state.

“We set this genotyping system up in Washington state well over a year ago anticipating exactly what’s unfolding right now, that there would be the emergence of new variants and that in Washington we really wanted to be on top of it,” Lindquist said.

Dr. Alex Greninger is assistant director of the clinical virology laboratories at UW Medical Center, which help with genotyping work.

Greninger said Washington is one of the best equipped states when it comes to sequencing.

"We have sort of the best eyes out there when it comes to looking for these variants and reporting on them, so I think as soon as omicron is here, we'll be one of the first to pick it up."

Greninger said flight paths into the U.S. may contribute to which states detect the variant first.

His lab has added a small extra step into their process to rapidly test samples to determine if omicron is present.

Public health officials say it’s possible omicron is already in the U.S, it’s just a matter of detecting it.

Despite global concerns about the variant, officials in Washington say people shouldn’t panic.

In a joint statement, Governor Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the discovery of omicron doesn’t change their approach to fighting the pandemic.

“We are continuing to urge everyone to get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask and be safe,” the statement reads.

“Public health officials say it will take a couple weeks to better understand this variant. As we learn more about the implications of this variant in our state, we must remember the Delta variant remains the dominant strain. People should feel empowered by and make good use of the tools already available to protect each other,” it continued.

News about the omicron variant comes at a time when Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are trending downward in Washington state.

According to the Washington State Hospital Association, there were 694 confirmed hospitalizations on Monday, down from 806 the week before.

However, hospitals remain at high capacity and it’s unknown what the winter will bring.