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Omicron variant reported in Wisconsin, severity still under review

Female doctor holds a face mask with "Omicron" variant text on it.
Stock Adobe
Female doctor holds a face mask with "Omicron" variant text on it.

We could find out this week if the COVID-19 Omicron variant is spreading in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced over the weekend that the federal Centers for Disease Control has identified the variant in a specimen from a Milwaukee County man who recently returned from South Africa, but is fully vaccinated, including with a booster dose.

South Africa is where the Omicron variant was first identified, and where the variant has been spreading quickly.

The state said this Omicron variant case is not related to a potential outbreak that DHS and the Milwaukee Health Department are investigating. The investigation involves 12 people from California who attended a Milwaukee County wedding late last month.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services
Wisconsin DHS
Dr. Ryan Westergaard of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Even if the Omicron variant spreads here, DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard said late last week, that health officials aren't sure of the potential impact.

"We do not have an answer to the question of 'does it cause more severe disease?' That's something a lot of scientists are looking at very closely. There's been anecdotes of the initial cases having not very severe illness, and generally mild. But, I don't think we can count on that being true for the general population," Westergaard said. "There's been too few cases to really characterize the full spectrum of clinical illness. So, we should presume it's another variant of SARS Co-V-2, which can cause serious disease, and stop it from spreading."

The Biden Administration said that the arrival of the Omicron variant in the U.S. is another reason people should get the COVID-19 booster, or get vaccinated. About a third of the Wisconsin population has not received any dose of the vaccine.

DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said Omicron's arrival is another reason to get tested for COVID-19.

"If they know they've been exposed to someone with COVID-19 if they're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, it is through this testing that we will identify cases of this new variant, and of course, potentially other variants," Timberlake said.

The Milwaukee Health Department is continuing its mobile vaccination effort this week, and a few city sites are open for virus testing.

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