Omicron Variant Discovered in Tulsa Wastewater

University of Oklahoma researchers believe that the Omicron variant is in the state and has been here for at least two weeks.

The Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 was discovered in sewage samples collected in Tulsa on Dec. 17.

Bradley Stevenson, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oklahoma, and a microbiologist, is leading the research group that analyzes the wastewater samples collected by the Oklahoma Water Survey at OU.

“There are enough people shedding the virus that we are able to detect it,” said Stevenson. “That means it’s here, and it probably has been for a couple of weeks.”

According to Stevenson, researchers don’t know how many Omicron cases the sampling represents.

While it’s a fraction of the cases caused by the Delta variant, the discovery of the Omicron variant in wastewater collected last Friday from the Northside Wastewater Treatment Plant in Tulsa is significant.

“We don’t know if people shed at the same amount or not,” said Stevenson. “But, for us to detect it, it’s got to be a good number of people.”

Omicron is expected to overtake Delta as the dominant variant in Oklahoma in a few weeks or months, according to infectious disease epidemiologist Katrin Kuhn, Ph.D. of the Hudson College of Public Health at the OU Health Sciences Center.

Stevenson said because most people start shedding the virus before they develop symptoms, monitoring wastewater allows researchers to track its prevalence more quickly.

“It’s really a useful tool for health professionals to get the word out and try to prevent further spread,” said Stevenson.

Samples are taken twice a week from all three wastewater treatment plants in Tulsa.

They last sampled on Tuesday, Dec. 21, and are expected to have results next week.

Tulsa Health Department Executive Director, Dr. Bruce Dart said it’s important that people who are unvaccinated get vaccinated as soon as possible and those who are fully vaccinated get their booster.

Masking indoors where social distancing may be difficult, regardless of vaccination status, is also recommended, according to the Tulsa Health Department.