The omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, which is known to be a highly transmissible form of the virus, may have already been present in the Commonwealth as early as December last year.
In a virtual press briefing yesterday, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. CEO Esther Muña confirmed that samples collected back in December to January have been positively identified as the omicron variant.
It was learned that the earliest sample that was positive identified as the omicron variant was dated Dec. 20, 2021, while the latest was dated Ja. 10, 2022.
However, according to CHCC spokesperson Guillermo Lifoifoi, CHCC has yet to determine whether the samples were collected from inbound travelers or from within the community.
Now that the omicron variant has been confirmed to be present, Muña said the goal now is to prevent further spread within the community.
“With the confirmation of the omicron variant in the community, it is essential for the CNMI to ensure individuals are provided the preventive measures to ensure that one can recover from an infection of SARS-cov-2. Our goal here is to try to get preventive measures and treatment to individuals. We have the therapeutic treatments, and we are also offering testing. Individuals can find out and prevent the spread by getting tested if they have the symptoms and isolating and working, and also getting accessing the services that we have, as well as getting your booster shots. Getting the third dose is essential to preventing hospitalizations and deaths,” she said.
Muña added that CHCC will also start closely monitoring hospitalizations because of the significant impact omicron may have.
“We need to monitor even more closely the hospitalizations [because of] how medically significant the virus affects our community,” she said.
Stephanie Kern-Allely, the regional communicable disease epidemiologist for the Pacific Island Health Officers Association, who is currently helping CHCC, said that identifying omicron within the CNMI is unsurprising, considering the steep spike in omicron cases seen around the world.
Fortunately, Kern-Allely said, it is believed that omicron is and has had fewer cases of severe disease. However, it is easily transmitted and if it is not controlled, the CNMI faces a huge risk of overwhelming its healthcare system.
“An omicron surge is coming. We’re currently seeing the start of it here. We know that it can still cause hospitalizations and death. This is not a toothless virus as it is still the same COVID-19 disease. We know that if we don’t control the spread, it can overwhelm our healthcare system. It’s really critical to put in place protection measures as well as prevention measures such as accessing vaccination, testing and making choices, isolating and quarantine yourselves as necessary,” she said.
“Preventing as many people as possible from that risk is important. We know that increased infections significantly burden the healthcare systems as the total number of hospitalizations rise, as well as other essential services that are operating since individuals employees will have to isolate and have individuals in their household quarantined. And we also know that the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it has to change and mutate and to come up with new ways to evade systems,” Kern-Allely added.