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caption: Tyler Gachen, a firefighter with the Enumclaw Fire Department, puts a Covid-19 testing swab into a test tube after administering the test, on Wednesday, November 18, 2020, in the parking lot of the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center along Southwest Campus Drive in Federal Way.
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Tyler Gachen, a firefighter with the Enumclaw Fire Department, puts a Covid-19 testing swab into a test tube after administering the test, on Wednesday, November 18, 2020, in the parking lot of the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center along Southwest Campus Drive in Federal Way.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Omicron variant detected in three Washington state counties

Three cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in Washington state, according to health officials.

That includes a case in King County.

The cases, the first detected in the state, were found in a man in his 30s from Thurston County, a man in his 20s from Pierce County, and a woman in her 20s from King County.

"We have been saying it's not a matter of if, but when, that we would find omicron in our state," said Dr. Umair Shah, state Secretary of Health, during a media briefing Saturday evening.

"That when is today," he said.

Shah said it’s still early in the investigation, and that the condition and travel history of the people who have tested positive are currently unknown.

However, officials say they don’t believe the cases are related.

According to Public Health - Seattle & King County, initial vaccination records show the King county resident was vaccinated and received a booster shot recently, likely after exposure.

Samples for the positive cases were collected between November 29 and December 1.

Shah reiterated Saturday what he's said several times since the discovery of the omicron variant sparked concern around the globe.

"Omicron is a reason for concern, however it is not a reason to panic," Shah said.

He said the state was primed to find the variant quickly.

The state has a system in place to monitor for new variants. Doctors have been on the hunt for signs of omicron through PCR tests and genome sequencing.

Sequencing has been prioritized for anyone with a travel history or close contact with a confirmed case.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, King county public health officer, acknowledged Saturday that news of the variant's arrival in the state is stressful for people to hear.

"During the holiday season, of all times, Covid-19 has thrown another nasty curve ball at us," Duchin said.

But Duchin stressed there are still many unknowns about the omicron variant.

"We don't know if this scary looking pitch will be a ball or a strike," he said. "It's still very early in the emergence of omicron and right now we don't have solid answers to our most important questions."

Scientists are still working to determine how transmissible the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness, and how effective vaccines remain against it.

In the meantime, health officials are stressing the importance of prevention strategies.

They say the best way to prevent the spread of this variant, or any others, is to get vaccinated and get a booster shot when eligible.

Vaccines have been approved for people aged 5 and older.

Those who are 18 or older and had their final dose of Moderna or Pfizer vaccines at least six months ago, or the single shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine at least two months ago, are eligible for a booster.

Additionally, health officials say wearing good quality, multi-layered, well-fitted masks is important.

And they're asking the public to pick up their phone if public health workers call.

"It is critical for us to get to the tools that we know that work, such as isolation or quarantine, to help us to limit the spread of this," said Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist.

Health officials say they do expect to see more omicron cases in the state, but the delta variant is currently the ruling strain.

In a statement Saturday evening, Governor Jay Inslee said the arrival of omicron in Washington was inevitable. But he said there are more tools than ever available to fight the virus.

"Be vigilant for any symptoms – such as fever or fatigue – and mask up in public settings. We all have the power to keep our communities safe," the statement said.

There's been increased interest in vaccines since omicron was detected globally, according to the State Department of Health. Appointments are tight in some areas of the state.

The state will receive 70,000 extra doses of Moderna next week to try to ensure vaccines are available.

State health officials say there's no plan at this point to re-institute measures like lockdowns.