Omicron detected in more Iowa counties, indicating community spread of the COVID variant

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Iowa Department of Public Health announced on Friday the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 had been confirmed in seven counties, including Johnson and Linn. According to an IDPH spokesperson, not all the people who tested positive for Omicron had traveled recently or been in close contact with those who had, so it is presumed there is now community spread of the variant in Iowa.

Omicron was first recognized by the World Health Organization on Nov. 24, after being detected in a test sample collected in Botswana on Nov. 11 and in one collected in South Africa three days later. On Nov. 24, WHO designated Omicron a “variant of concern.” The first case was detected in the United States on Dec. 1.

The State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) reported the first case of Omicron in Iowa on Dec. 9. The infected person was under the age of 18, had not yet been vaccinated and was tested for COVID-19 because of recent travel.

When SHL announced the first Omicron case on Dec. 9, the variant had been detected in 23 states, according to the CDC. As of Monday afternoon, the CDC was reporting Omicron had been confirmed in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Only Montana, North and South Dakota and Oklahoma had not yet confirmed cases of the variant.

According to IDPH’s statement on Friday, in addition to Johnson, Linn and Black Hawk counties, Omicron has been confirmed in test samples of residents of Jefferson, Polk, Scott and Story. SHL randomly selects COVID-19 test samples for genetic sequencing to determine the variant – in late November the lab said it was selecting 300 samples a week for sequencing – and as of Friday, IDPH reported 18 cases of Omicron, 13 of which were detected on Friday. Delta was still the dominant strain of the virus in Iowa on Friday, according to IDPH.

“[Omicron] is the most transmissible virus of COVID that we had to deal with thus far,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week at a virtual event held by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “It will soon become dominant here. That’s one thing we know.”

In its COVID-19 data update on Monday, the CDC said Omicron is now considered the dominant strain at the national level, responsible for 73 percent of new cases reported in the U.S. last week. That is “nearly a six-fold increase in Omicron’s share of infections in only one week,” NPR noted in its reporting on the CDC data.

As they have since COVID-19 vaccines first became available at the end of last year, public health officials are stressing the importance of everyone who can be vaccinated to be vaccinated. But with the emergence and rapid spread of Omicron, they are also now stressing the importance of booster shots.

Omicron mutations increased the number of breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated and those who have already had COVID-19. Booster shots offer greater protection against the infection, and more particularly against serious illness for anyone who becomes infected.

There have been several high-profile breakthrough infections over the past several days, although none have been identified as being caused by Omicron. The Gazette reported on Friday that Mayor-elect Tiffany O’Donnell had tested positive for COVID-19. According to a statement from O’Donnell, she was vaccinated but had not yet received a booster. The mayor-elect said she is only experiencing mild symptoms.

Two national political leaders, familiar to Iowans from the 2020 Caucus, have also experienced breakthrough infection. On Sunday, both Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren said on social media they had tested positive. Both had received booster shots and both reported only experiencing mild symptoms.

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In addition to the central role of vaccinations and boosters in countering Omicron, public health officials are also stressing the importance of wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing as ways of mitigating virus spread.

Testing is also important in trying to control the spread of COVID-19. Free at-home tests are available at many locations in Johnson and Linn counties.

In Johnson County, test kits can be picked up at the city halls of Iowa City, Coralville and Tiffin, and the public libraries in Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty. Test kits can be both picked-up and dropped-off at the offices of Johnson County Public Health in Iowa City and SHL in Coralville.

Linn County locations to pick up test kits include the Catherine McAuley Center, the Community Health Free Clinic and the Eastern Iowa Health Center – all in Cedar Rapids – and Atkins Family Medical Center. Test kits can be picked up and dropped off at Linn County Public Health.

More locations to get free at-home test kits in both counties, as well as the rest of Iowa, can be found by using the IDPH test kit online locator tool.