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What Iowa health experts want you to know about the Omicron variant

While the variant has not officially been detected in Iowa, health experts are urging people to take precautions to help slow the spread.

DES MOINES, Iowa — The World Health Organization says it could take some time to fully understand the threat the newly dubbed Omicron variant of COVID-19 will bring.  

As the world waits to see how this variant differs from those that came before it, health experts in Iowa are urging people to take precautions to help slow its spread. 

"So the best way for Iowans and their families can protect themselves is to make sure they're fully up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations," said MercyOne Infectious Disease Pharmacy Specialist Dr. Jeff Brock.

While the variant has yet to be officially detected in the United States, health experts say that shouldn't stop people from protecting themselves and their loved ones. 

"Right now, it is not in Polk County, it is not in Iowa," said Nola Aigner Davis with the Polk County Health Department. "But that's not to say that we will not see it here. We don't know when we don't know how. But the most important thing that we can really encourage our community to do is to protect themselves is to get vaccinated or to get their booster, because what is going to protect you is to get that vaccine."

But doctors don't only want you to get a vaccine

"I would also highly encourage people to really consider keeping wearing a mask while in public and large gatherings," Brock added. "I know it's burdensome, it's not pleasant to a lot of people. But it does help protect you and others from actually getting infected with the virus."

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On top of a new variant, health systems say they are also bracing for how the flu will impact the region this year. 

"What's scary to us is that our hospital numbers are so high," Aigner Davis said. "[Monday], we had 130 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Polk County. We cannot see COVID-19 and flu at the same time. Our hospital systems cannot handle that."

"The truth is that the systems are just very full," said Broadlawns Medical Center Dr. Nicole Gilg Gachiani. "And that's across the state, that's also across the country. But certainly true within the Des Moines metro. So even if we aren't seeing skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts, or even if we aren't seeing very high numbers of influenza, every case puts additional pressure on the system. And unfortunately right now, every single hospital bed counts because we just don't have an excess."

"Last year we were quite blessed with virtually zero influenza in Iowa," said Brock. "We really did not see any. And that's the way it was around the country. This year is ramping up to be a higher incidence flu season. We really don't know yet, but cases are increasing across the country. They're being reported. And so we feel that flu is going to be an issue this year."

If people continue to not follow COVID-19 precautions and mitigations, doctors say omicron will not be the final variant.

"The idea of having new variants should not be unexpected, when there's this much community transmission," said Dr. Gilg Gachiani.   "So when the virus is infecting different people and continuing to infect different people, the likelihood that it is going to mutate or it's going to change and there is going to be a variant should be expected."

Health experts also said rapid COVID testing is key to give you and your loved ones extra peace of mind as the holiday season continues.

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