UW expert: Omicron could be dominant COVID-19 variant in Wisconsin in matter of days

Coronavirus

MADISON, Wis. — The Omicron COVID-19 variant could become the dominant variant in Wisconsin in a matter of days, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert said Tuesday.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, the vice chair for research in the School of Medicine and Public Health and UW Hospital’s medical director of infection control, made the remarks in a live-streamed question-and-answer session focused on the variant Tuesday night.

During the stream, Safdar said there are a lot of unknowns about the latest variant but that initial data shows it to be more transmissible than previous strains. Because of that, even if the variant is no more severe than others, the sheer volume of possible new cases could push health systems already stretched thin to the brink.

“In Wisconsin, we’re literally already there and Omicron has just arrived here,” Safdar said.

RELATED: ‘This is something that happens in underdeveloped countries’: Madison hospitals at capacity as PHMDC warns there’s more omicron here than confirmed

Earlier Tuesday, Public Health Madison & Dane County announced nearly 150 Omicron cases have been identified in the county. The first three cases were identified just five days earlier, and officials warn there are likely more cases present than have been confirmed.

While initial data appears to show the Omicron variant is no more severe than the Delta variant, Safdar stressed it remains early. The new variant’s symptoms also appear to be similar to those of the Delta variant and others.

She also referenced a study from the University of Hong Kong that found Omicron infects and multiplies 70 times faster than Delta and the original COVID-19 strain in the human bronchus but that Omicron infection in the lungs is much lower than the original strain and Delta variant. That, she said, could be why it spreads more quickly but could lead to less disease severity.

“Ultimately, I think if we are left with a variant that no doubt infects a lot more people than one would like but doesn’t cause the dreaded COVID pneumonia or the need to be on a ventilator or the need to be short of breath, then that is a silver lining with this variant if that holds to be true as we see more cases arise,” Safdar said.

Another apparent difference between the Delta and Omicron variants is the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatments. Safdar said while a number of antibody treatments work pretty well for Delta, that’s not the case for the latest variant.

“In fact, there’s only a few that are expected to have reasonable activity against (Omicron),” she said.

Due to the virus’ evasiveness and more variants being possible in the future, Safdar said she now views focusing on getting the population to herd immunity as “a bit of a lost cause.” Instead, the end game should be to implement mitigation measures on a routine basis to consider being able to “live with” the virus.

“I think it’s become clear that we can’t eliminate it, we certainly can’t eradicate it, and so what we’re left with is how can we manage it so that people can still live their lives,” she said.