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Omicron variant detected in Jackson County wastewater, as experts predict 'a wave on top of a wave'

A photo shows a local COVID vaccination clinic.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Testing of wastewater from Jackson and Buchanan counties has revealed the presence of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Researchers have identified the highly-transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in wastewater from two western Missouri counties.

On Friday, the state Department of Health and Senior Services announced 2% of viral strands in samples from Jackson and Buchanan counties had "mutations associated with omicron." The samples were from December 7 and 8 — less than a week after the first confirmed case of the omicron variant in a St. Louis City resident on December 3.

The Coronavirus Sewershed Surveillance Projectis a collaboration between the state health department, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the University of Missouri. While it can't estimate what percentage of people in the sewer districts that provided the samples may have contracted the omicron variant, the project will be able to document how quickly it's spreading.

Marc Johnson, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the MU School of Medicine, is one of the leaders of the project. According to Johnson, it may take omicron longer than it took delta to become the primary strain in their samples.

"What I'm going to be watching for — with delta, usually by the second week it [was] the only thing we [were] detecting, although it was a lot different because the total viral numbers were already really low then," Johnson said.

When delta arrived in Missouri, cases were near their lowest point since the start of the pandemic, so there were fewer viral strains in their samples to begin with.

"We're a wave on top of a wave: delta numbers were high and increasing already," Johnson said.

Because of the high numbers of delta cases, Johnson expects it may take omicron longer to become dominant in the wastewater samples his lab analyzes. The surveillance project receives new results every Friday.

Missouri has seen a delta-driven rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of November, which accelerated in the weeks following Thanksgiving. COVID hospitalizations in Boone County have hovered around 100 for most of December, more than double the number at the start of November.

Dr. Laura Hesemann is part of MU Health’s COVID incident command team and points to the high baseline of patients as an added complication on top of pre-existing staffing difficulties.

“Everybody needs nurses, everybody needs respiratory therapists, everybody needs techs and all the other staff that it takes to keep our health care system going,” Hesemann said.

According to Hesemann, it’s still too early to know exactly what omicron's arrival will mean for the system. But, nearly two years into the pandemic, caring for COVID patients has put a strain on the system's health care workers.

"Our staff are tired and our staff continue to do amazing work every single day," Hesemann said. "I just really hope that they feel seen and appreciated. I hope that people recognize what is happening in hospitals in terms of dedication is not going away."

On the East Coast, the new coronavirus strain has already contributed to a rapid spike in cases in New York and New Jersey.

Copyright 2021 KBIA. To see more, visit KBIA.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.
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