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Interview: Nevada prepares for omicron variant

A health worker in a mask is preparing vaccine by sticking a syringe into a bottle.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Adrienne Desens, a pharmacist with Renown Health, prepares a syringe with a second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to administer to a health care worker at Renown’s South Meadows drive-through site in Reno, Nev., on Jan. 8, 2021.

The omicron variant has already made its way to California and health officials in Washoe County say it’s only a matter of time before it will arrive in Nevada. Mountain West News Bureau reporter Bert Johnson spoke to Dr. Mark Pandori to learn more about the state’s level of preparedness. Pandori is the director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory.

Bert Johnson: Nevada and other states in the Mountain West have lagging vaccination rates as compared to the nation overall, and those rates are different among different race and ethnic groups. There are some disparities there. Does that concern you in the context of the omicron variant?

Dr. Mark Pandori: There’s two parts in an answer to that question. Number one, the low rates of vaccination do concern me, in the context of every unvaccinated human being provides an open host, where the omicron virus could get into more easily than a vaccinated person. And, so, by remaining unvaccinated, there’s an invitation to the virus that is an easier freeway for it to go down to get into our state or to get in our communities, so it’s kind of like holes in a wall around a castle, and if every unvaccinated host is a hole in that wall, that, that the opponent could get through, so you could look at it through that lens.

But another way to look at vaccination in the context of omicron is to say that there’s a danger that there’s so much change in this virus that even vaccinated individuals [are] more readily going to be hosts to this virus. And if that’s the case, then we’re going to have to really reexamine vaccination strategy and consider the importance of boosters in a way that we haven’t even touched upon yet. And that’s going to be a real, interesting challenge for us.

Johnson: How do you feel about Nevada’s level of preparedness to deal with this new variant? Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns still, but where do you feel we stand? 

Pandori: Well, right now, we’re back to a situation where surveillance and testing are of omnipotent importance. And we’re lucky, or we’ve worked hard, in Nevada to create a pretty powerful genomic surveillance system, so at the state lab in Nevada, positive cases are sequenced on a daily basis. That is that the turnaround from getting a positive case to ascertaining its variants, its lineage, so to speak, is a very short time frame, shorter than a lot of other jurisdictions in the country.

So, when you’re talking about surveillance, being in Nevada, you’re in a state that’s absolute state-of-the-art in its ability to do that. Where you might be more concerned is the vaccination rates. And, so, while we might be able to detect and define this thing when it arrives very quickly, we probably are creating a slightly better invitation for it by having citizenry that aren’t as vaccinated as we can be.

Johnson: I know that you’re busy, but if there’s anything you wanted to add, you know, I’m all ears.

Pandori: Well, so I think one of the things that I used to say a lot, but I think it’s time to say it again, is that we get things like omicron, you know, we get to omicron, or we get to Delta, because the virus is replicating in human beings. Every time the virus goes from one human being to another, that’s how it changes, and only by changing can you get new variants. And, so, it’s like when we look at vaccination, we’re probably putting our heads against a stone wall to try and get people to change their mind. But I always try to say that, you know, vaccination does more than protect you, it does more than even protect your grandmother and your grandfather and the people that are around you.

Vaccination is a weapon in genetic warfare, okay? Because when you’re vaccinated, you limit your ability to participate in the evolution of the virus. And if we’re upset, or if we’re angry that the scientific community keeps coming out and saying things about new variants, that is happening because the virus is remaining in the human population; that’s the only way this bad stuff happens and will continue to happen. So, if people could just look at vaccination not as a defense, but as an offense against the virus, in terms of lowering and slowing down its evolution, then stories like omicron just won’t happen.

This interview was produced by Michelle Billman.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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