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One of the Rheonix machines in use.

The Tompkins County Health Department is recommending all vaccinated individuals 18 and over to get a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. The boosters are authorized for anyone in that age group who received the Pfizer of Moderna vaccine series at least six months ago or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago. The Health Department recommends the booster to “help maximize protection from COVID-19, extend the vaccine’s durability, and protect our community against the virus.”

Booster dose appointments are available at local pharmacies, state vaccination sites and some medical offices. Dr. William Klepack, Tompkins County Health Department’s medical director said protection against COVID-19 is especially important as we head into the winter months.

“This is the time of year when the weather gets colder, and the holidays bring people together indoors,” Klepack said. “I urge everyone who is eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine to protect yourself and others.

The booster authorization came just shortly before the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the coronavirus variant B.1.1529, or Omicron, a variant of concern. According to the WHO, this decision was made on the evidence that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, such as how easily it spreads or how severe the illness it causes is.

There is not yet much known about Omicron. It came to light in South Africa in recent days, and researchers there and across the world are racing to study it. It’s not yet clear whether this variant is more transmissible, according to the WHO, but the number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant. Studies are currently underway to determine if it’s because of Omicron or other factors. Tompkins County saw a big spike in cases over the summer as the Delta variant took hold, which was a much more transmissible variant of the virus than the original.

Similarly, there is no concrete information on whether Omicron causes more severe disease compared to Delta or other variants. Data shows there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but the WHO said this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection due to Omicron. There is preliminary evidence that suggests there might be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron compared to other variants.

The WHO is working to determine the effectiveness of the current COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the president of the United States, said in a press conference that it’s likely the antibodies created from the current COVID vaccines would provide some level of protection against the Omicron variant.

Rheonix, an Ithaca-based biotechnology company whose diagnostic instruments process the majority of COVID-19 tests at Cayuga Medical Center, announced on Nov. 30 that their machine, the Rheonix COVID-19 MDx Assay is able to detect the Omicron variant, as well as other variants of public health concern.

Because of the large number of mutations in this variant, there was some concern about the ability to detect it as reliably as when the machines were first developed.

“Rheonix continually assess the potential impact of variants on assay performance by conducting ‘in silico’ analysis of publicly available SARS-CoV-2 sequence data as well as laboratory testing of prevalent variants,” Dr. Gwendolyn Spizz, chief scientist at Rheonix, said. “Based on our analysis, we are highly confident in our ability to detect the Omicron variant and we will continue to rigorously monitor the public genome databases.”

(1) comment

Amber Jones

Am confused by the recommendation that one get a booster to "protect others" given that there is no evidence that the vaccines do anything to prevent one from getting and spreading covid. Recommendations at the federal level have been to get vaccinated to protect oneself as they appear to reduce symptoms in the vaccinated for a few months, at most (provide little to no protection after four to six months). They also appear to be considerably less effective against Delta so why would the boosters work against Omicron at all?

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