Omicron variant detected in Dane County, officials urge attention but not panic

MADISON, Wis. — The Omicron variant has made its way to Dane County, according to public health officials.

Janel Heinrich, Director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, said during a public briefing that a total of three cases have been detected in the county. But that number could soon rise.

“Given the highly transmissible nature of omicron, it’s likely more,” Heinrich said during a briefing Thursday morning. “But I want to take a moment to reiterate: that while omicron deserves our attention, we should not panic.”

Just under two weeks ago, the quickly spreading variant was identified in a Wisconsin resident who had recently traveled to South Africa, which was one of the first countries to detect the new COVID-19 variant.

RELATED: Wisconsin health officials confirm first case of Omicron COVID-19 variant

Health officials with Public Health Madison & Dane County encouraged eligible residents to get their booster shot in response to the new variant, saying they’re a great help with reducing the risk of severe illness and death.

“As we work to learn more about the Omicron variant, including how easily it spreads, remember that the best protection against COVID-19, including the Omicron variant is for people ages 5 and older to get vaccinated,” Heinrich said in a statement earlier Thursday. “For those who are already vaccinated, this is the best time to bolster your immunity with a booster dose as soon as possible. Vaccination greatly reduces risk of severe illness or death.”

Heinrich says they have not yet decided whether they will extend the county’s current indoor mask mandate, which is set to run until January 3, 2022.

“We know that masks are an effective layer of prevention. And as we are having omicron be detected, our case activity is quite high, our hospitals are quite full, we’re going to ask folks for now to keep wearing your mask, but have not made any final decisions there,” Heinrich said when asked about a possible extension.

Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway also urged people to continue wearing their masks and get vaccinated, saying all of those measures offer levels of protection from all forms of COVID-19.

“You choose your level of risk and your layers of protection,” the mayor said Thursday. “But please do so in a way that takes into account not just your own risk, but also the risk of those around you — your family, your friends, your coworkers, and your entire community.”

Officials with the World Health Organization designated the variant as a Variant of Concern on Nov. 26, indicating it has the potential to be more contagious, cause more severe illness or have decreased effectiveness against vaccines or treatments than previous versions of the virus. Experts worldwide are working to determine just how contagious and dangerous the variant is, compared to others that have been in circulation.

The variant’s arrival in Dane County came alongside a period of surging cases and hospitalizations that have overloaded some hospitals, in some cases forcing some rural hospitals to shutter non-urgent procedures due to an all-time high number of COVID-19 patients.

RELATED: SSM Health suspending ‘non-urgent medical procedures’ at Monroe hospital due to patient volume spike

Anyone looking to schedule a booster appointment in Dane County should visit PHMDC’s coronavirus website.