State officials urge vaccination as omicron spreads in US

Omicron was first identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

State health officials last Thursday urged Alaskans to take preventative measures against COVID-19, as the new omicron variant has already been detected in other states across the country.

Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said that while another variant wasn’t unexpected, there’s still a lot of unknowns about omicron.

“We know a lot about COVID; we’ve been expecting a variant,” Zink said. “It’s just (that) this was a pretty large genetic shift.”

Omicron was first identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

According to Zink in a press briefing earlier last week, the specific mutations of the strain as it relates to the virus’ spike protein are concerning, as the virus uses the spikes to enter a person’s cells. The spike protein parts are where omicron’s mutations are found.

Last Thursday, Zink said health officials still need to monitor the variant to see how it will affect people.

“We also don’t know how efficacious our vaccines or our boosters or our treatments are … so we’ll continue to follow that as we move forward,” she said.

Although Alaska hadn’t reported any cases of the omicron variant as of Thursday, Zink said taking preventative measures — which include vaccination, masking, distancing and ventilation — is important.

As of Dec. 2, California, Minnesota, New York, Hawaii and Colorado have detected omicron cases.

“Even if our vaccines proved to be slightly less efficacious against this variant, imperfect protection is better than no protection at all,” she said.

As of Dec. 2, 55.5% of Alaskans 5 and older were fully vaccinated, and another 61% had received at least one dose. The Kenai Peninsula Borough lags behind the statewide average, with 47% of people 5 and older fully vaccinated and 51% with at least one shot as of Thursday.

COVID cases and hospitalizations have been trending downward statewide, but Alaska remained at a high COVID transmission alert level Thursday — with an estimated rolling average of 234.2 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

The state reported 349 new cases and two new deaths Dec 2.

Statewide there were 75 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Thursday, with seven patients on ventilators.

Zink said data still shows that unvaccinated people are being hospitalized for COVID more than people who are fully vaccinated, and emphasized the importance of the approved vaccines especially as the omicron variant has begun circulating in the U.S.

“What we’re recommending to Alaskans is that they get vaccinated if they have not yet been vaccinated,” Zink said. “We’ve got this. We have the tools, we just need to move forward.”

Reach reporter Camille Botello at