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What you need to know about the omicron variant

Minnesota public health professionals weigh in about the virus that's spreading rapidly in countries in Southern Africa.

MINNEAPOLIS — The latest coronavirus variant was given a Greek alphabet letter name shortly after being identified. Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious disease physician with Allina Health, says that's significant.

"WHO labeled [omicron] a variant of concern almost within days of its recognition, which is a vivid measure of how much concern this variant represents," Rhame said.

Rhame, along with Dr. Beth Thielen of M Health Fairview, says it's because the virus is spreading rapidly in the South African province where it was discovered.

"It’s making up a larger proportion of the sequences that are being detected through surveillance in South Africa, and so the concern is that it may be spreading faster than the delta variant even," Thielen said.

That concern led the US to impose a travel ban on South Africa and seven surrounding countries, effective Monday, Nov. 29.

RELATED: US imposes travel restrictions after new omicron COVID-19 variant found in southern Africa

Rhame says it's still only a matter of time until the strain hits the US.

"We can slow it down, but we can’t stop it," he said. "And we’ll probably know a great deal more of what it’s like before it gets here. It will probably be months and months before it gets here, so we have time to learn about it."

During that time, both Rhame and Thielen say the best idea is to first, take a deep breath — and don't panic. 

"The dominant message needs to be: We really need more information," Thielen said. "This is early days, and I think it’s just hard to predict which of these variants is really going to catch fire."

Secondly, keep taking precautions that have proven to be effective, like wearing a mask, social distancing and getting the vaccine. If you're already vaccinated, get the booster.

"Take steps proactively early to prevent problems, rather than waiting until the whole house is on fire and we need to put it out," Theilen said. "Together, if you layer on top masking, and distancing, and limiting size [of gatherings], and vaccination, all of those things together I think can work together to make us all safer."

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