Local health officials weigh in on COVID-19 omicron variant, now detected in North America

Local health experts are weighing in on the omicron variant, a new variant of concern emerging globally. Following the detection of the variant, the CDC updated its guidance on booster shots. 

FOX 11 spoke with the health experts as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday expanded its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots to all adults 18 and older, according to the national public health agency's news release.  

"Today, CDC is strengthening its recommendation on booster doses for individuals who are 18 years and older. Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J&J vaccine," the CDC said.

Amid concerns over the "highly transmissible" omicron COVID-19 variant, the CDC continued to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated as well as getting a booster dose to help stave off severe symptoms of the novel coronavirus and to prevent hospitalization.

RELATED: Omicron variant: CDC expands COVID-19 booster recommendation to all adults 18 and older

President Joe Biden called the new coronavirus variant a cause for concern but "not a cause for panic" Monday and said he was not considering any widespread U.S. lockdown. He urged Americans anew to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and return to wearing face masks indoors while in public settings to slow any spread.

Dr. Anne Rimoin, a Professor of Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, echoed President Biden's sentiments.

"We should be concerned about this variant but it's not time to panic. We know variants are going to arise and the most important thing is to identify them, understand them, and then have a plan. This is not surprising that we're seeing another variant. We still have large populations that are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated and this virus is going to continue to evolve as it has the opportunity to spread from person to person," said Rimoin.

Rimoin said the most important factors to determine are if the variant is more transmissible, causes more severe illness or evades vaccines.

"It does appear that it may be more transmissible but this is still anecdotal evidence," she said.

When it comes to whether or not the variant causes more severe illness, that information is also anecdotal.

"At this point, we don't really know. One province in South Africa where they've seen several cases of this variant, they're starting to see increases in hospitalizations so it could be an indicator but it's still too early to tell definitively. There are going to be a lot of studies conducted in the next several weeks to really determine if that's the case. Once we have those pieces of information then we're really going to understand the significance of this variant but until we get to that point what we really need to do is just be aware, understand where this variant is and make sure that everyone has sufficient immunity, does the best they can to increase immunity by getting vaccinated, and boosted if they're eligible," said Rimoin.

Rimoin said it does appear the variant can cause re-infection in patients.

"The omicron variant apparently has the capacity to re-infect people who have had the coronavirus more easily than other variants so you shouldn't just think you're protected if you've had COVID-19, it's good to get vaccinated. It [omicron] could potentially jeopardize the immunity that we have from our vaccines, and could diminish the effectiveness of those vaccines," said Rimoin.

Rimoin likened the omicron to the delta variant.

"We're seeing something happen very similar to what we saw last year with the delta variant. We saw cases starting to increase. We started to identify cases globally and sure enough, it became the dominant variant. We don't have enough information to really make an assessment of how important this is or isn't but it doesn't change the fact that we are moving into the winter. We've just had a lot of people gathering together, traveling nationally, traveling internationally. We anticipate seeing cases rise whether it's due to the delta variant or a new variant," she said.

Rimoin said the travel ban the U.S. has implemented to and from eight South African countries, will not necessarily stop the variant from spreading in the United States because it's likely already here.

"We should anticipate that it's already here. These travel bans are only going to be effective on the margins. They may slow down the spread of this variant but they're not going to keep it out of the country. This virus doesn't care if you have a passport or not so it doesn't matter. It's still going to spread if we're letting people in and out of the country and we have to balance this issue of public health and travel, commerce, and trade in general," said Rimoin.

Rimoin said vaccine equity is still an issue globally too.

"The vaccines are concentrated in high-income, wealthy countries where countries in the global south have not had access to vaccines. Only seven percent of people on the African continent who are eligible have been vaccinated," she said.

The President also praised South African scientists for acting fast to identify the new variant, saying the world will fight it "with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and Biden's leading COVID-19 adviser, said earlier Monday that there were as yet still no cases of the variant identified in the U.S. but that it was "inevitable" that it would make its way into the country eventually.

Fauci said scientists hope to know in the next week or two how well the existing COVID-19 vaccines protect against the new variant, and how dangerous it is compared to earlier strains.

FOX Television Stations' Kelly Hayes, Catherine Stoddard and Chris Williams contributed to this report.