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Omicron Variant in Florida: Miami Doctor Explains What it Means

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The first case of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant was detected in the U.S. one week ago.

Since its discovery in South Africa, more than 20 countries have found the variant so far.

Now, the new strain has hit Florida with the first case reported at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, a spokesperson for the hospital confirmed in a statement to WFLA Tuesday.

"The patient is experiencing mild symptoms and had recently returned from international travel," the statement said. “Our providers were able to quickly detect, test, confirm and add this data to our developing understanding of this strain."

A second presumptive case was also reported in St. Lucie County, according to NBC affiliate WPTV.

As doctors and scientists learn more about this new strain and the impact it could have on the community in South Florida, NBC 6's Carlos Suarez sat down with Dr. Rossana Rosa of Jackson Health System to learn more about the omicron variant.

Is the omicron variant in Florida?

Dr. Rosa: "The reason why it is completely expected that we will see the variant here in South Florida is because we live in an interconnected world. We know that by the time we pick up any of the variants in one part of the world, it is likely it has already spread and is already present in other places. It's just a matter of looking for it."

Is the omicron variant more deadly than delta?

"There are still many unanswered questions about it, especially whether it will displace delta as the predominant variant. But in terms of how easily it can be found in other places of the world and from where it was originally reported, we have already seen [it is very contagious]."

NBC 6's Carlos Suarez has the latest on testing amid the rise in cases of the omicron variant.

How important is testing in the detection of new variants?

Dr. Rosa: "I think that people should continue to have a high level of of suspicion and a low threshold for getting tested in case they develop fever, cough, ... loss of sense of taste and smell. It's still something to be considered. So I don't think that we've seen that there's much difference in terms of how it presents clinically."

Do vaccines and booster shots protect kids and adults against the omicron variant?

Dr. Rosa: "A lot of the things that we do for pediatrics are actually weight-based. So I wouldn't take it as it being a sign that [kids] are less protected. In fact, one of the studies from the trials came out that the immunity or I should say, the antibody levels, this type of response that was measured was just as good as in adults. So I wouldn't take that kids receiving smaller or lower doses is a sign that they will have less immunity."

Omicron vs. Delta: How are they different?

Dr. Rosa: "When viruses change, they essentially change so that they are able to fight off whatever immunity you've been able to build up. And so it was expected based on the number of mutations and the location of the mutations in the virus that there could be a decrease in the neutralizing activity of the antibodies. However, the fact that among people who have had what's called mixed hybrid immunity, meaning among people who have had infection and then vaccination, as well as among people who have already received boosters that neutralization, that capacity of the antibodies to control the virus, is much better."

How long does it take a booster shot to take effect?

Dr. Rosa: "Studies have shown that actually boosters get to work somewhat faster. Also, within seven days you can already start seeing a very good response to them. But, again, get your booster right away."

Do I need a booster shot to protect myself from the omicron variant?

Dr. Rosa: "When you get a booster, what you're essentially telling your body is 'hey, here is this substance that you need to act against.' So when you get a booster is it somewhat of a retraining of your immune system so it's better able to fight off whatever it comes across. A few studies have come out in the past few days that have shown that there is a decrease in the capacity for antibodies to control the virus, but that among people who have received their booster already, that capacity to control the virus is much better."

On Wednesday, Pfizer released data saying that the booster shot of their COVID-19 vaccine raised antibody levels enough to fight the new Omicron variant. NBC 6's Carlos Suarez has more.

Will the Pfizer vaccine help fight against the omicron variant?

Pfizer said on Wednesday that data showed a third shot of their vaccine raised antibody levels high enough to fight omicron, but that two doses alone may not be enough to block the strain entirely.

The results were similar to lab work out of South Africa that showed a diminished level of protection among the vaccinated, people infected and those with mixed immunity.

Two doses, however, still offers protection against severe disease no matter the variant.

“I think the most important piece of information that has come in the past two days is that 1. the immunity is not completely lost. We are not back to square one and 2. that protection is much better when you’ve already received your boosters," Dr. Rosa said. 

Either way, the company announced Wednesday that it is working on a new vaccine for omicron that could possibly be ready by March.

Health experts, however, say it is too early to know whether or not a shot will be needed in part because we do not know how hospitalizations will play out with the new strain, or how severe it is.

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