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Exploding fireworks on a mural behind Taelyn Smith, 11, as she gets her first COVID-19 vaccine at Children's Hospital in New Orleans on Friday, November 5, 2021. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate) ORG XMIT: BAT2111051544100122

Though much is still unknown about the new omicron variant of COVID-19, vaccinations remain Louisiana's best defense at preventing another deadly surge in cases and hospitalizations, according to the state's top public health official, Dr. Joe Kanter.

Scientists are working tirelessly to understand whether the new "variant of concern" is more contagious, virulent or resistant to vaccines than previous strains of the coronavirus. Still, it's "far, far unlikely" the virus will thwart vaccine protection entirely, Kanter said. 

He likened the omicron variant to a tropical storm way out in the Gulf of Mexico: "You don't know what the track is going to be. You don't exactly where it's going to go. You don't know exactly how strong it's going to be when it gets there."

"But you're paying attention and you're probably preparing," Kanter said. "Right now, preparing means getting vaccinated."

First identified in South Africa in early November, the omicron variant has since been detected in at least 36 countries and five U.S. states, not including Louisiana. The state's Department of Health is conducting genetic sequencing on 100% of positive-PCR tests to determine whether the variant is present.

"It's not the time to panic, but it is the time to pay attention and to take precautions," Kanter said. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards called Friday's press conference — his first COVID-19 media briefing in weeks — to encourage the public to get vaccinated, and when eligible, to get a booster shot. He called it the "smartest, best decision" for yourself and your community. 

Louisiana continues to lag much of the nation in inoculations. Though the vaccine is now available to anyone age 5 and older, just under half of the state's population is fully vaccinated. Edwards' administration recently extended through December a program that offers $100 gift cards to those who get vaccinated for the first time. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends booster shots for all people 18 and older who are six months out from their second Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech shot or two months out from getting the one-shot Johnson & Johnson jab. So far, roughly 21% of Louisiana's population has received a booster, according to health department data. 

Little is known about the omicron variant. Researchers have identified more than 50 mutations, primarily on the virus' spike proteins, which play an important role in how the virus infects its host. At the moment, however, there isn't sufficient data to determine if the variant spreads quicker or makes patients sicker than the original strain of the virus. 

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It's also unclear to what degree the variant will be resistant, if at all, to the vaccines and therapeutics currently available, Kanter said. 

"Even in the scenario that we learn, perhaps, that this variant has some resistance to the vaccine ... it is far, far unlikely that that will be absolute resistance," Kanter said. "The much more likely scenario is that it will be some degree of reduced resistance ... It is rarely all or nothing."

Some parts of the nation are in the throes of another surge in cases, but in Louisiana the pandemic is in a sort of lull. The state counted 213 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, far below the record set in mid-August, when hospitals were on the brink of catastrophe with more than 3,000 patients, mostly unvaccinated.

The fourth wave in Louisiana was primarily fueled by the delta variant and preyed on the state's unvaccinated population. New daily vaccinations during that period skyrocketed to nearly 10,000 a day, though that number has since fallen to around 2,000 a day. Kanter urged the public not to wait until cases spike again to get vaccinated. 

"We need to use this timing to our advantage," Kanter said. "We need to use the time now to increase vaccinations across the state as much as possible."

When Dr. Miranda Mitchell, an LSU professor and physician at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, thinks back on her time caring for COVID-19 patients during that fourth surge, one emotion that comes to mind: fear. 

Most of her patients were otherwise health individuals who hadn't been vaccinated against COVID-19. At Friday's press conference, she described the "terrifying fear" in her patients' eyes as they struggled to breathe. 

"Those are the type of stories that you hear people talk about in war zones and natural catastrophes and major crisis ... but that is what we saw day-in and day-out for weeks during the late summer," Mitchell said. "It was scary. We don't want to go back there." 

"How can we prevent that?" Mitchell said. "One of the best tools we have to keep you safe is vaccination."


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater