The Omicron variant was identified in Alaska exactly one year after the arrival of the first shipment of vaccine to the state. Here, a UPS cargo plane arrives in Anchorage late in the evening of December 13, 2020. State health officials say that as long as the SARS-Cov2 virus continues to infect human hosts, it will continue to replicate and develop new mutations. Widespread vaccination — and boosters after 6 months — are an effective way to interrupt the cycle. (DHSS photo/Kristal Fiser)

Monday’s (12-13-21) announcement that the omicron variant is now in Alaska has state health officials hoping that the current downward trend in coronavirus cases in Alaska will continue. Although omicron has proven more communicable than some earlier mutations of the virus, the resulting illness typically has been not as severe. Nevertheless, there’s strong evidence that the vaccine and a booster shot provide critical protection against omicron and any future variants.

Note: Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink will speak to the Sitka Assembly during its regular meeting on Tuesday, December 14, and outline changes to the state’s reporting strategy coming in January. Listen beginning at 6 p.m. on 104.7 FM, or on the KCAW livestream.

There were over 1,400 new coronavirus infections in Alaska last week, about the same number of new infections reported each day during the height of the recent surge in late September and October.

Nationally, cases are on the rise again, due in part to the arrival of the highly-transmissible omicron variant. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, is glad to see that only eight-percent of Alaska’s hospital beds are occupied by covid patients — down from 20-percent a couple of months ago. And although immunity from vaccines has been shown to wane after 6 months, Zink says that vaccines remain the best choice for reducing the risk of a severe infection.

“You’re around 10 or 10 times more likely to be hospitalized. If you’re unvaccinated compared to vaccinated,” she said, during a weekly videoconference with statewide media on December 9.

Zink says that a couple of new monoclonal antibody treatments recently have been approved to fight COVID-19 in patients who’ve already contracted the disease, but they’re no substitute for not getting COVID in the first place. That means a vaccination, or a booster, for anyone who’s at least 6 months out from receiving the Pfizer or Moderna series — or two months out from their single-shot J&J vaccine.

The US Centers for Disease Control on December 10 authorized boosters for anyone 16 and older who received the initial series of the Pfizer vaccine.

Will a new variant always mean a new round of boosters? State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin, says this remains a possibility.

“If we get a variant that evades immunity to such a degree that the vaccines that we have really provide limited protection?” he asked. “And then yes, we would be looking at the possibility of a booster dose, especially if that variant was associated with high rates of hospitalization and death.”

Variations like delta and omicron can occur when the virus invades a human host and is allowed to replicate. Omicron first appeared and skyrocketed in South Africa, where vaccination rates are generally low.

McLaughlin says we probably won’t see an end to variants until we see an end to COVID.

“We would expect that mutations are likely to occur in regions of the world where low vaccination coverage rates are happening,” McLaughlin said, “because the virus has more opportunities to replicate, the more people that are susceptible to infection, the more likely you’re going to see those people get infected, and then the more viral opportunities for replication.”

Another argument for a booster shot? 57-percent of infections among Alaskans over 65 years of age in October were breakthrough cases. This  population is 77-percent vaccinated — but vaccinated early. A similar increase in breakthroughs in younger age groups seems likely as they move past the six-month mark, unless they take advantage of the widely-available and free booster vaccines.