MILWAUKEE — A newly detected variant of the COVID-19 virus has health officials around the world, and in Wisconsin, on high alert as they learn more about the strain and what it can do.
"We are taking this very, very seriously," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
"This new variant has many mutations that make it different from previous variants that we've seen. In fact, it has far more mutations than we've ever seen in a circulating variant," said Dr. Ben Weston, the chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County.
The omicron variant was first identified in Botswana and South Africa nearly two weeks ago, and health officials say it's been growing ever since.
"The PCR testing, the test that detects the genetic sequence, is able to detect the omicron variant. Since Nov. 11, up until today, now it's in hundreds of people," said Dr. Joyce Sanchez, Infectious Disease specialist and Medical Director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
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"It's rapidly become the dominant variant. It has out-competed the contagious delta variant," said Weston.
While a lot is already known about the variant, there's much more to learn, including whether it's more transmissible or if it can cause more severe illness.
"Is it more or less likely than delta to put you in the hospital? We also don't yet know the ability of the variant to evade the immune response, particularly how effective our vaccines will be against it," said Weston.
Which is why, for the time being, Milwaukee health officials have put a mask advisory into effect for people regardless of their vaccination status.
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"This advisory is to wear a mask at all times when indoors in a public setting," said the Milwaukee Health Department's commissioner, Kirsten Johnson.
They also urge that the best way to keep you and your loved ones safe against the virus as a whole is to get vaccinated.
"It further solidifies the need to get that protection that's conferred through vaccination that is safe and exquisitely effective at preventing hospitalizations," said Sanchez.
Health officials add that as of Tuesday, there have been no cases of the omicron variant found in Milwaukee County.