The City of Burlington has found indications that the new Omicron COVID-19 variant may be spreading locally, Mayor Miro Weinberger's office announced Friday.
The city's wastewater monitoring program has detected a "very limited" presence of mutations associated with the variant, which was first detected in South Africa last month and has since been confirmed in 39 states, including all of Vermont's neighbors.
The state health department will still need to confirm the presence of Omicron through genomic sequencing of a positive PCR test result. But most experts believe the variant's arrival in Vermont was inevitable.
“I fully expect that our genetic sequencing results will confirm the first case soon, perhaps in a matter of days,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in a statement Friday afternoon.
Burlington’s wastewater monitoring program, which began in August 2020, started testing for Omicron two weeks ago. Mutation signatures associated with the variant were found in samples taken this week from two of the city’s three treatment plants.
The findings come at a precarious time in Vermont’s fight against the pandemic. Delta has surged throughout the state this summer and fall, infecting tens of thousands of people and pushing hospitals to their capacity. Upcoming holiday gatherings are expected to prolong the surge.
Omicron could push Vermont's case counts even higher: While findings about the variant are still emerging, early data suggests that it could be twice as transmissible as the Delta variant and may infect vaccinated people more easily. Still, the vaccines appear to be holding up when it comes to preventing severe illness. Experts say people who have received a booster shot have far stronger protection.
Vermont officials said this week that they are planning to roll out a robust booster shot campaign to increase uptake; so far, only about half of the people who completed their initial vaccine regimen have received this additional dose.
“Omicron shows all the signs of becoming the dominant strain worldwide,” Levine said in his statement. “We are hopeful that it won’t lead to more severe illness and hospitalization, but it is still too early to tell.”
In a press release, Weinberger urged people to get tested and vaccinated prior to gathering with friends and family this month. “By identifying this possibility early, when it would be at a very low level, we have an opportunity to heighten our vigilance and follow the recommendations of public health experts as we head into the holidays," he said.