Once the newly identified omicron COVID-19 variant is identified in the U.S., Kentuckians should expect it to quickly arrive in the commonwealth, Norton Healthcare’s System Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Steven Hester, said Monday.

Cases have been confirmed in Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong, Canada and the United Kingdom, USA Today reported Sunday.

The variant was first identified in South Africa and is labeled as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization because, Hester said, “it may have some potential to have … increased transmissibility; it may have some some resistance to some of the potential therapies and vaccines.”

There are still a lot of unknowns about the variant, though. In a Monday afternoon video shared to social media, Gov. Andy Beshear said we should know more about the variant at the end of this week and next.

“Just breathe,” he said. “There is a lot that we do not know about this variant.”

He encouraged people to mask when appropriate and get their booster shots.

“We know not to panic,” Beshear said. “We know that the information will be forthcoming and we will be transparent with that information, good or bad. It does appear that there is reason for concern, but not for panic.”

U of L Health’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jason Smith, said his three main questions about omicron are about “its transmissibility, its severity and its response to our immune system.”

“Any of those could cause another wave,” he said. “I mean, if you think about it, if suddenly it became much more serious, that’s something we’ve got to deal with across the board.”

More: Omicron cases found in Canada, UK; experts warn new variant could be in US undetected: Latest COVID updates

Still, he said, “I’m not sure it’s any more concerning than many of the other variants we’ve dealt with, at least now. The biggest concern is the number of mutations to this particular variant. And I think that is the unknown factor that is always going to be a concern when we’re dealing with variants of any types.”

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Dr. Jason Smith, a trauma surgeon at the University of Louisville Hospital, is also the chief medical officer. Oct. 21, 2020

And despite the recent COVID-19 spike in the state, Smith said of omicron, “I’m doubtful it’s in our area yet.” We’re more likely to see it hit coastal states first, he said, before Kentucky.

More: COVID-19 cases again on the rise in Kentucky. Are we seeing the start of a winter surge?

Since the variant was just detected on Wednesday, Smith said, he’s unsure if the city and U of L’s wastewater testing program has the ability to screen for it yet. (The University of Louisville’s Co-Immunity Project, a part of the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute that’s tracking COVID-19, has been able to detect variants early throughout the pandemic by testing sewage).

The Washington Post reported Sunday that labs should be able to detect the variant swiftly. Hester said he believes Norton’s tests will be able to detect the variant.

Dr. Steve Hester is seen in a screen capture from a video call with reporters. Nov. 29, 2021

For now, Hester said, people should wash their hands, wear masks, physical distance when appropriate, get vaccinated and get booster shots.

“Everybody wants to spend time with family and it’s so important in terms of just our mental health,” Hester said. “I think we’re going to learn a lot in the next couple of weeks about the transmissibility of this new variant and the … potential severity of it. So, I think it’s going to … give us some information prior to those holidays.”

More: What to know about omicron, the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa

Reach health reporter Sarah Ladd at sladd@courier-journal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ladd_sarah.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville doctors watching new omicron COVID-19 variant

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