Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

It’s only a “matter of time” before the omicron variant of COVID-19 arrives in Maine, the head of the state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday after the first U.S. case from the new variant was detected in a California resident.

Still, more data are needed to come to conclusions about the variant or its qualities, including how transmissible it is or if it can overpower the protections of the COVID-19 vaccine, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said.

Medical professionals will likely start to get a fuller picture over the next few weeks, Shah said.

“The question now is not whether it’s a concern, but whether it’s a threat,” Shah said. “And if so, to what degree.”

Most of all, Shah asked Mainers not to panic about the variant and not to allow concerns over omicron to overshadow the spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that have been driven by the now-dominant delta variant. Health officials have expressed concern that more indoor gatherings due to colder temperatures and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays could lead to a crisis for Maine’s hospital system.

“Omicron is a spark on the horizon, but delta is the fire that is blazing here today,” Shah said.

The best ways to prevent the spread of this new variant are the same as the preventive measures against other strains of COVID-19 — get vaccinated, sign up for the vaccine booster if eligible, and wear masks indoors, especially in public settings.

Shah said it isn’t clear yet whether the spike in cases in the South African province where omicron was first detected was due to the transmissibility of the variant itself or another factor, such as one or more superspreader events.

State officials will know whether omicron is here from the genomic sequencing work done at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, which frequently receives positive COVID-19 samples from the state and analyzes them. The analysis needed to determine the variant of the virus can take more than a week and as long as two weeks, Shah said.

Shah also acknowledged that there have been conflicting answers about whether the antibodies provided by the vaccine are as effective against the omicron variant as they are against other forms of COVID-19.

It is likely that the effect of omicron on vaccinated individuals is more nuanced than simply an effective-ineffective binary, Shah said.

“There will be some level of protection from the current vaccines,” Shah said. “Just how high a degree that protection is? That’s the question on the table.”