The Covid-19 omicron variant was definitively detected in the Mission for the first time this week, according to local scientists.
Three positive omicron cases were linked back to the testing and vaccine site on 24th and Capp streets, according to University of California San Francisco PhD, professor and chair of biochemistry and biophysics Joe DeRisi, who runs the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub.
“We saw no omicron before last week — nothing,” DeRisi said. “This past week, we confirmed three omicron [cases], and none who had omicron had travel histories. So that immediately tells you that there is more omicron in the community than [you think] you’re seeing. Omicron is here and spreading fast.”
As a result, DeRisi encouraged those in the Mission to get their booster shot ahead of their holiday travels, or as soon as possible. During the holidays, more people will likely celebrate indoors and with less precautions, thus potentially increasing the likelihood of viral spread, he said.
He told Mission Local he expects the lab to find much more omicron variant in the coming weeks.
While the omicron variant still needs to be studied, it is generally agreed so far that it is more transmissible than other variants. It is thought to result in fewer hospitalizations than other variants, but “if a surge causes many thousands of new cases per day, even a small percentage of that total entering our hospitals could still overwhelm our hospitals,” said a statement from the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
The new strain was first detected in San Francisco on Dec. 1, according to the health department. Preliminary test results suggest about 30 unconfirmed omicron cases exist in the city at present, though officials warn it could be an undercount.
Meanwhile, local public health experts are eyeing the effects of the virus in other countries. In other places like the United Kingdom, omicron cases have grown exponentially; the region now has more cases than it did during the entire pandemic.
DeRisi said a booster shot can help combat the effects of omicron as it spreads. If a person already had the first two shots, the body is already primed to accept the vaccine and can start reaping benefits from the vaccine “right away,” though its peak effect will hit in about two weeks. For omicron, “Two doses of vaccine is not enough. So it is really important that people take it seriously and get boosted,” he said.
“Omicron is most transmissible variant we have seen in the pandemic,” said Dr. Diane Havlir, a professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco and a leader at the Mission Unidos en Salud site. She concurs two doses appeared less effective than a third booster shot “against omicron infection and also less protective for more severe disease.”
“With this new information, the actions that are needed the same, the urgency is greater. Get persons boosted,” Havlir advised in an email to Mission Local.
But San Francisco reports a “fairly low booster rate,” DeRisi continued. Only 44 percent of eligible San Franciscans had been boosted as of Dec. 13, according to the Health Department. For residents older than 65, only about 68 percent received a booster; epidemiologists agree that older populations maintain elevated risk of severe disease and death related to Covid-19.
“Although we have made great progress in our booster uptake in the last several weeks, in the face of omicron it is vital that all individuals who are eligible make a plan to get vaccinated as soon as possible, especially those at higher risk of becoming severely ill,” said Dr. Susan Philip, Health Officer for San Francisco County said in a statement.
Last year’s holiday season, notably before the covid vaccine was available, there was an uptick of covid cases in the Bay Area and California. The governor ordered another stay-at-home order as sick people overwhelmed the state’s hospitals.
The Mission and other parts of San Francisco’s southeast was hit particularly hard by covid in the pandemic pre-vaccine.
Although San Franciscans are vaccinated, epidemiologists and public health experts are encouraging people to take precautions during the vacation. This includes masking-up in indoor and crowded settings, and opting to gather outside instead of inside if possible. Nix mixing with unvaccinated individuals, and isolate immediately and test if someone exhibits covid symptoms. Vaccines are encouraged for all those at least 5.
If you have been exposed, DeRisi advised taking rapid tests on days 3, 4 and 5 of exposure. Taking a test before that is unlikely to pick up results, and the virus’s most infectious stage is during days 3 to 5, which is the time one needs to isolate and prevent spread, he explained.
Nothing beats another shot, though, DeRisi said. Anyone at least 16 years old can get one — Mission locals should stop by the Unidos en Salud site at 24th and Capp streets.
“The holidays [have] the perfect conditions for spread of a new variant. So if you can get boosted before you travel, that is an insurance policy,” DeRisi said.
The Unidos en Salud Mission vaccination site is walk-up, free and requires no proof of ID. Staff are bilingual. It runs Saturdays through Tuesdays at 24th and Capp streets, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., vaccinates both adults and children, and provides rapid covid tests.