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Omicron variant reported on Navajo land

WINDOW ROCK

On Monday the president’s office announced that the Navajo Epidemiology Center confirmed the first known case of the Omicron variant from a sample collected in mid-December 2021 from the Utah Navajo Health System.

“The Omicron is here on the Navajo Nation,” said President Jonathan Nez.

This is not surprising since 95% of new COVID-19 cases nationwide are now due to the more transmissible, but seemingly less virulent Omicron variant, as reported by the CDC.

“This is not a time to panic,” Nez said in a town hall Tuesday, “but we must step up our efforts to take the necessary precautions to limit the spread of this new variant in our communities.”

While COVID-19 cases had been trending downward on Navajo since mid-November with a slight uptick after Christmas, the states surrounding the Nation have seen explosive increases in cases.

“The numbers around us are astronomical,” said Nez. “It just blows me away. It’s everywhere. It’s very contagious.”

In the past week, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. overall have been skyrocketing. On Monday, the number of new cases surpassed 1 million, with a weekly average more than doubling to 480,916 cases.

There have been 8,652 U.S. deaths reported in the past week for a total of 827,748 since the pandemic began.

This comes on the heels of millions of people gathering with friends and family over the holidays as they now return to work and school in the midst of a growing surge and a widespread shortage of testing availability.

The federal government has promised over 500,000 million free rapid tests that will become available in coming weeks and provided $140 million in ARPA funds to schools for COVID-19 safety measures and testing.

However, it is important to note that rapid tests are generally not considered as accurate as PCR tests in detecting COVID-19.

Vaccines and boosters

Nez said because of the Omicron surge across the country more and more health care workers are having to isolate due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

“This is creating many challenges for hospital facilities, which also impacts hospitals on the Navajo Nation,” he said.

Once again, Nez encouraged everybody to continue with protective measures such as wearing masks, social distancing, and washing hands.

“If we allow ourselves to let up, it could surge,” he said.

Nez said health officials are also recommending people wear two masks in public due to how quickly the Omicron variant spreads.

However, the best defense against the Omicron variant is to get fully vaccinated and get a booster shot, he said.

“At this point in the pandemic, we know what we have to do to protect ourselves and to push back on this virus…,” said Nez.

About 61% of the Navajo population is fully vaccinated, comparable to the U.S. total of 63%.

And on Tuesday, President Joe Biden shared similar messages.

“These coming weeks are going to be challenging,” said Biden. “We’re going to see, as you all have been hearing, a continued rise in cases.”

Biden said vaccinations for those age 5 and above and booster shots for everyone age 12 and above are now available at about 90,000 sites across the country and there is “no excuse” for people not to get them.

According to the CDC, new clinical data demonstrates that vaccine effectiveness against infection for two doses of an mRNA vaccine is approximately 35%, but a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose restores that to 75%, markedly decreasing the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death.

“If you are vaccinated and boosted you are highly protected,” said Biden. “Be concerned about Omicron. Don’t be alarmed.”

However, vaccinated people can still be infected and transmit the virus, even if they are mildly ill or asymptomatic.

“Yes, you still can get COVID-19 if you are fully vaccinated,” said Nez, adding most people with breakthrough infections are not ending up in the hospital. If you’re vaccinated, you’re more likely to recover quickly and survive.”

Changing protocols

Between Christmas and New Year’s, the CDC released new guidance that reduced quarantine time for those exposed COVID-19 and isolation time for those infected with the virus as follows:

  • People infected with COVID-19 should isolate for 5 days (instead of the previous 10 days) and if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours), follow that with 5 days of wearing a mask when around others.
  • For those who have been exposed to COVID-19 who are unvaccinated or more than 6 months out from their second mRNA dose (2 months after J&J vaccine) and are not yet boosted, the CDC recommends a quarantine for 5 days followed by strict mask use for an additional 5 days.
  • Those people who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.
  • And, for all those exposed to COVID-19, best practice includes a test at day 5 after exposure. If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19.

(For questions or clarifications regarding these recommendations, people should contact their health provider.)

The CDC said the sudden shift in protocols was motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness.

However, health officials like Anthony Fauci suggested that it was also due to the need for people to return to the workforce, deter staffing shortages and avoid disruptions to the economy, leaving some skeptics wondering if the economic concerns were being prioritized over public health.

“I mean, obviously if you have symptoms, you should (be out), but if you are asymptomatic and you are infected, we want to get people back to jobs — particularly those with essential jobs to keep our society running smoothly,” Fauci told CNN on Dec. 28.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky also acknowledged the changes were motivated by economic and societal concerns in balance with science.

“With a really large, anticipated number of cases, we also want to make sure we can keep the critical functions of society open and operating,” she told NPR. “We can’t take science in a vacuum. We have to put science in the context of how it can be implemented in a functional society.”

Looking toward the future, the FDA recently approved Pfizer and Merck antiviral pills, which some health experts say could be a “game-changer” because they can significantly reduce the severity of the illness when administered early after infection.

Biden announced that the federal government has doubled its order for the Pfizer anti-viral from 10 to 20 million treatment doses, which will be delivered in June.

In the meantime, Nez advised everyone not to let up on precautions and get tested immediately if you are feeling sick.

“If you’re sick, don’t go to school and don’t go to work,” he urged.

 As a public service, the Navajo Times is making all coverage of the coronavirus pandemic fully available on its website. Please support the Times by subscribing.

 How to protect yourself and others.

Why masks work. Which masks are best.

Resources for coronavirus assistance

  Vaccine information.



About The Author

Rima Krisst

Reporter and photojournalist Rima Krisst reported for the Navajo Times from July 2018 to October 2022. She covered Arts and Culture and Government Affairs beats.Before joining the editorial team at the Times, Krisst worked in various capacities in the areas of communications, public relations, marketing and Indian Affairs policy on behalf of the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico. Among her posts, she served as Director of PR and Communications for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department under Governor Bill Richardson, Healthcare Outreach and Education Manager for the Eight Northern Pueblos, Tribal Tourism Liaison for the City of Santa Fe, and Marketing Projects Coordinator for Santa Fe Indian Market. As a writer and photographer, she has also worked independently as a contractor on many special projects, and her work has been published in magazines. Krisst earned her B.S. in Business Administration/Finance from the University of Connecticut.

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