Researchers: Omicron detected in wastewater in Oklahoma last week

The South African doctor who alerted officials of the possibility of a new variant, later named omicron, said the "unusual but mild" symptoms were what caught her attention. (Photo: Getty Images)

The South African doctor who alerted officials of the possibility of a new variant, later named omicron, said the “unusual but mild” symptoms were what caught her attention. (Photo: Getty Images)

TULSA, Okla. (KFOR) – One day after the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced that the omicron variant was detected in the Sooner State, health leaders say it has been detected in sewage samples.

Officials say the omicron variant of the virus was discovered in sewage samples collected in Tulsa on Friday, Dec. 17.

“We have seen the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater increasing recently, to concentrations higher than we have ever observed. This increase has been driven by COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant. However, the recent detection of the Omicron variant in wastewater means that a significant number of Tulsans are now infected with it. While our data suggests that infections from the Omicron variant are still a fraction of the infections from Delta variant SARS-CoV-2, Omicron is on the rise. Monitoring wastewater will allow us to track its prevalence more quickly and with less effort than patient testing,” Bradley Stevenson, Ph.D. said.

Health leaders say people with COVID-19 shed the virus in their waste before they develop symptoms of the virus, which provides an early warning sign of surges.

Since September of 2020, the team of scientists, epidemiologists, and public health leaders have been monitoring wastewater drainages in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and several smaller cities.

“By collecting wastewater from multiple communities across the state, we have a sampling network that represents more than 1.2 million Oklahomans,” Jason Vogel, Ph.D., said. “That has allowed us to sample more than 30 percent of the state’s population and detect the Omicron variant in wastewater as it starts to move into the state.”

Since wastewater analysis predicts the presence of the virus about a week before infections are reported, researchers say they know omicron is already spreading in the state.

 “Although the Delta variant of COVID-19 is still the most dominant variant in Oklahoma currently, Omicron will most likely become the dominant variant in a few weeks or months,” said infectious disease epidemiologist Katrin Kuhn, Ph.D. of the Hudson College of Public Health at the OU Health Sciences Center. “The evidence thus far shows that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than previous variants, so it is important that people get vaccinated if they’re not already, or get the booster if they’re eligible. Vaccinations are very effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death.”

Officials say you should consider getting vaccinated or receiving a booster shot and wearing a mask in public indoor settings.

Even though omicron appears to spread easier than the delta variant, early evidence suggests that the symptoms of infection could be milder.

“For viruses to survive in the human population, in time they often evolve to become more transmissible but less lethal in order to keep multiplying,” Kuhn said. “That’s actually good news. Even though we may have to learn to live with COVID-19 indefinitely, a positive scenario is for it to become milder and eventually turn into something like the common cold.”

Officials also stress that since people infected by omicron may not experience major symptoms, they may not get tested. As a result, official test results won’t accurately be reflected in the infection rate.

“If people don’t feel as sick with an Omicron infection as they do with the Delta variant, they may not get tested, but wastewater analysis provides a picture of everyone who is infected whether they have symptoms or not and whether or not they get tested,” she said. “In that respect, it’s actually more important to monitor the wastewater because it gives us a very good indication of how much transmission there is in a community.”

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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