DENVER (KDVR) — The U.S. has now restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday due to a new COVID-19 variant. The new variant, omicron, caused a significant spike in cases in South Africa and neighboring countries in a period of 10 days.

“It looks like it was first collected in Botswana and South Africa 10 days ago. It was really identified in five days, then in that 10 days they have seen a real significant number in cases in those two areas specifically,” Dr. Michael Roshon, emergency physician at Centura Health in Denver said.

Dr. Michael Roshon, emergency physician at Centura Health in Denver

Rohson said it’s important for health care leaders to respond quickly in these types of situations to keep variants from spreading.

“That is why we see the travel bans. We will learn very quickly what this variant will do then we will decide if we need to be nervous or not,” Rohson said.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

“New variants of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) have been shown to spread globally over time. In Colorado, the CDPHE Laboratory and some private laboratories conduct genetic sequencing on human samples that are positive for SARS-CoV-2 from around the state. This allows us to track the variants that are circulating in our state.”

To date, the omicron variant has not been detected in Colorado. You can find Colorado’s current variant data at https://covid19.colorado.gov/data

Rohson said with several hospitals already at capacity in the metro area, the new variant is something in the back of health care workers’ minds.

“If we get a variant that spreads faster and causes more severe disease especially in those who have been vaccinated that’s what we worry about in the emergency rooms and hospitals,” Rohson.   

On Friday, Pfizer and BioNTech stated that a COVID-19 vaccine could be tweaked and produced within 100 days to counter a “vaccine-escape” variant.

“We can make a variant-specific vaccine if we understand what a particularly dangerous variant looks like. We can make a vaccine specific to that spike protein,” Rohson said.

He said right now, there is no need to be more afraid than necessary. He said the vaccines and boosters are doing their job and there is hope with Pfizers anti-viral pill in the works. Pfizer has submitted the pill to the Food and Drug Administration and it is still pending approval.

But he said people who are more susceptible to getting sick still need to play it smart and keep themselves safe.

“The reality is these variants are going to circle. If you are someone at high risk you need to take extra precautions,” Rohson said.