ELLSWORTH — The Omicron variant — the new and rapidly spreading strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — has been detected in Maine, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Friday.
Genomic sequencing done by The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor confirmed the variant in five samples from Penobscot County, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
“This news is unwelcome but not unexpected,” said Governor Janet Mills.
The day before the confirmation of the variant, on Dec. 16, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said at the department’s weekly press briefing that the Maine CDC believed Omicron was already within state borders and it was just a matter of time before it was found.
He said that early data suggests Omicron is more contagious than the Delta variant, which is the current, dominant variant of COVID-19 cases in Maine.
Shah said that from a public health perspective, the focus is largely on contagiousness. The more contagious a virus, the more strain it may put on the health-care system as it spreads through populations.
Regarding the severity of illness Omicron may cause, Shah said, “Here, there are some glimmers of hope.”
He said it’s too soon to know for sure, but early data from South Africa suggests Omicron might not be as severe as Delta.
Early data also suggests that vaccines are effective against Omicron, Shah said, but efficacy is diminished over time without a booster shot.
Getting a booster shot restores vaccine efficacy to about 70 percent, Shah said.
“Boosters were important before,” he said. “They are more important now.”
“The appearance of the Omicron variant reinforces the importance of taking every step we can to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew in a joint statement with Shah. “That means getting vaccinated as soon as possible, getting a booster shot and wearing a mask while in indoor public places. These steps will keep Maine people alive and out of hospitals today and in the coming weeks and months.”