KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting no cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant as of Monday, the Infectious Disease Physician with the University of Tennessee Medical Center (UTMC) predicted the nation could see it’s first confirmed case by the end of the week.

Dr. Mark Rasnake with UTMC said while very little is known about the latest strain of the virus, there is something that sets omicron apart.

“There is concern that this maybe starts as a more mild illness and might not have the loss of taste and smell, that has become the classic sign that people have COVID,” said Dr. Rasnake. “Might make it a little more difficult to to spot clinically.”

While that would be a hurdle, Rasnake said there are several positives in terms of testing.

“Fortunately, the currently available COVID PCR tests can detect this variant and it also apparently has some unique signals on the testing platforms so that people without even sequencing might be able to get some early signs that that variant is present,” Rasnake explained.

As far as the vaccines go, he said it’s still too early to tell just how effective they will be. However, he is optimistic.

“We know there will be at least some protection from the vaccine against severe illness, people might still get sick and have milder symptoms,” he said.

The Director of Nursing with the Knox County Health Department agreed. Dena Mashburn said the vaccine is still the first line of defense.

“Until we can get everybody vaccinated we’re going to run into this problem because the more it spreads the more it has an opportunity to change and create new variants,” said Mashburn.

Both Mashburn and Rasnake said it’s important people are aware of COVID cases in our community as we head into the holiday season.

“My concern is we have a lot of individuals in our community that haven’t started the vaccination process at all and I think that’s really important as we we think about gathering with family members that might be higher risk than us that we get vaccinated,” said Rasnake.

“COVID is still with us and we still need to be very aware of trying to protect those around us, especially those who are more vulnerable,” added Mashburn.

Rasnake also pointed out that he feels it is a good sign the variant was detected so early. “It’s a very good sign because I think the world was caught a little flat-footed by how fast delta moved when we had the delta surge this past summer,” he said.

Rasnake said with the world learning of the new variant so quickly, it gives scientists and medical professionals a head start to getting answers to some of the unknowns. “We need to know clinically is this causing more severe disease or less severe disease than the other strains?,” began Rasnake. “It will take a few weeks of following patients on the global scale to really know that.” He also said the next couple of weeks will shed light on how much the vaccine can protect people against the variant, as well as how contagious the variant may be.

Rasnake ended with saying it’s not a matter of if we see the omicron variant stateside, but a matter of when.

“I would not be surprised if this week there’s reports of cases being identified in the U.S.,” he said.

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