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Virginia health officials 'on alert' for Omicron COVID-19 variant, state lab testing for it

The Virginia Department of Health encourages vaccinations and booster shots as the best form of protection against new and emerging variants.

NORFOLK, Va. — The Virginia Department of Health said it’s “on alert” for the emerging Omicron variant of COVID-19, encouraging people to get vaccinations and booster shots as the best form of protection.

So far, no cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in the United States, but it has led to international travel restrictions to help slow the spread.

Virginia leaders said they’ll be able to detect the new variant through lab testing, adding that "emerging variants such as Omicron are expected and may be soon detected in the United States and Virginia."

RELATED: New variant cause for concern, not panic, Biden tells US

"In Virginia, we are fortunate to have a robust genetic sequencing program to determine quickly whether variants of concern are circulating in our communities," said Dr. Denise Toney, director of DCLS, the state’s public health laboratory, in a statement released Monday.

On Monday morning, President Joe Biden said the first step to addressing the Omicron variant was adding travel restrictions from some countries in Africa.

"To give us time to get more people to get protection, to be vaccinated and get the booster," Biden said.

Biden urged Americans to get fully vaccinated and said national health leaders believe current vaccines provide at least some protection against the omicron variant.

Health leaders and hospitals are now waiting on scientific research to show how severe the Omicron variant is, how quickly it spreads, and if it has the ability to resist immune response from prior infections or from vaccines.

"In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool," Biden said Monday.

Biden added that he doesn’t expect more travel restrictions or lockdowns as the variant spreads.

"If you and your family are fully vaccinated, you can celebrate the holidays much more safely, and given where we were last year, that’s a blessing," he said.

At the president’s news conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the PCR tests that are commonly used to test for COVID-19 would pick up and identify the Omicron variant, as opposed to other strains of the virus.