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Montana labs testing for all virus variants, including omicron

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COVID testing at Montana state lab

Ashley Ausman of the DPHHS State Public Health Laboratory prepares samples for RNA extraction while working to conduct COVID-19 testing in 2020. RNA isolation from samples is one step in the process that takes several hours to produce a final result.

As concern worldwide grows about the omicron variant, the state of Montana’s public health laboratory and its partners are conducting sequencing of positive tests to check for the mutated virus.

“The DPHHS public health laboratory and our partner laboratories are conducting variant sequencing on all positive COVID-19 samples that have enough genomic material,” state health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said in an email Monday. “The whole genome is sequenced and we use the national databases to identify the linage for all variants, not just delta or omicron.”

On Monday, the World Health Organization said the newly detected variant could bring a “very high” risk across the globe. The omicron variant has a high number of mutations, "some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility."

The agency cautioned there is still "considerable uncertainty" about the variant, including how transmissible it is and how effective vaccines will be against the mutated virus, as well as how ill it makes people.

The variant has not been detected in Montana yet. Delta became the prominent variant in the state in July, and following that Montana saw a surge in cases and hospitalizations, as well as deaths, that has recently eased some. Recent numbers from the health department show that COVID-19 has killed more Montanans in 2021 (1,380), when vaccines were broadly available, than in 2020 (1,258).

The state public health lab in Helena, as well as labs at the University of Montana, Montana State University and FYR Diagnostics process Montanans’ COVID-19 tests.

Ebelt said the Department of Public Health and Human Services will notify people when the omicron variant is detected in Montana and continue to update its weekly report on variants that is posted online.

Also Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it recommended COVID-19 boosters for all people ages 18 and older. Previously those who were at risk of severe outcomes because of their age, health conditions or jobs were eligible for boosters more than six months after their second Moderna or Pfizer shot, as well as anyone who received their Johnson & Johnson shot more than two months prior.

Asked if Montana was developing any plans or response in advance of the omicron variant reaching Montana, Ebelt said the state health department will continue encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“We’ve learned the COVID-19 vaccine offers the best available protection against infection and at preventing severe illness and death,” Ebelt said. He pointed to data showing that between April 1 to Nov. 19, 83% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 and 77% of those who died were unvaccinated.

Nearly 52% of Montanans are fully vaccinated; nationally that number was almost 60%. About 11,600 Montanans became fully vaccinated over the last month, down from 17,864 the month prior and 25,413 the month before that.

“Vaccine coverage in our state will drive how many Montanans will be hospitalized and/or die from this disease,” Ebelt said. He added that clinical trials show vaccines are safe and effective and recommended Montanans who haven’t been vaccinated consult with their doctor or pharmacist. The health department has also been running public service announcements encouraging vaccination.

Ebelt also said the health department recommended Montanans use face masks and physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as practice proper hand hygiene. He also said the health department recommended people avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces and get tested and stay home if they feel sick or are a close contact of a positive case.

“We know that testing continues to be a key factor in limiting the spread of COVID-19,” Ebelt said.

State lawmakers earlier this year passed a package of legislation that limited public health officials' ability to implement and enforce requirements such as mask mandates. The GOP-majority Legislature also passed the first law in the country to ban vaccine requirements by employers, including hospitals.

The Biden administration has tried two avenues to require vaccinations — one through the Occupational Health and Safety Administration targeting businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccines or regular testing and one requiring facilities that are reimbursed from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to vaccinate their employees.

The OSHA vaccine mandate for larger businesses and organizations was put on hold earlier this month by a Louisiana federal appeals court, prompting the agency to temporarily drop its plans to enforce the new rules. They were originally slated to require that all affected workers be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, and unvaccinated employees would have to start wearing masks indoors on Dec. 5. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen signed onto a lawsuit challenging the rule, which has been consolidated with the case in Louisiana.

OSHA's rules mandating vaccinations for workplaces with 100 or more employees would not apply to state or local government workers in Montana. Only those 22 states with OSHA-approved "state plans" in place must apply the workplace protections "at least as effective as OSHA" to public employees. Montana has no OSHA state plan in place.

A separate rule issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, requiring COVID vaccinations for health workers, is also the subject of multiple court challenges. A federal judge in one of those cases on Monday granted a preliminary injunction for the 10 states that filed the complaint, although Montana is not one of them and isn't covered by the injunction.

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