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The omicron variant has spread to Pennsylvania — here's what you need to know

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja joins us to share what’s known so far about the coronavirus omicron variant; and as the Heinz Endowments’ president Grant Oliphant prepares to leave the organization, we look back on his legacy and ask what he sees as the future of philanthropy in Pittsburgh.

The coronavirus omicron variant has been identified in Pennsylvania
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The omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread into even more states, including a case identified in the commonwealth.

What do we know so far about the omicron variant?

“The biggest difference is that the omicron variant has a lot more mutations than the delta variant, has a lot more mutations than alpha, beta, gamma. And some of those mutations have been associated in the past with increased transmissibility or some degree of immune evasion. And then you couple that [with] rising cases in South Africa and that’s really what rang the alarm bells,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Adalja says the more opportunity the virus has to infect people, the more likely concerning variants will emerge. Last Friday, a Philadelphia man was the first identified case of the omicron variant in Pennsylvania, and Adalja says he suspects this virus is already spreading widely.

“I suspect it’s already here [in Pittsburgh],” he says. “I don’t think there’s any place that’s going to be impervious. This is a more transmissible version.”

However, the delta variant is still the dominant virus strain that the public should be concerned about, says Adalja.

Vaccinations have been proven to protect people from becoming seriously ill if they contract coronavirus, and Adalja says if you are in a high risk population designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should get a booster.

As the holidays are coming up and people are considering how to spend that time, Adalja says people have to learn how to “risk calculate.”

“The best way to risk calculate is to be fully vaccinated,” he says. “The vaccine makes decisions so much easier because then you know that even if you get a breakthrough infection, it’s going to be mild, it's not going to land you in the hospital.”

He says at-home tests are also a great way for people to ensure safety, along with masks for those who might be concerned about potentially interacting with unvaccinated people.

President of Heinz Endowments Grant Oliphant is leaving the philanthropic organization
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Grant Oliphant will step down as president of the more than $2 billion Heinz Endowments in February to become chief executive officer of the San Diego-based Conrad Prebys Foundation.

“I like to think of it not as leaving, but as taking on a new challenge and going toward something that has been calling me, and part of that, by the way, is family,” says Oliphant about the career move.

Oliphant’s parents live on the West Coast.

“I’m going to miss Pittsburgh itself, and everything it represents to me,” says Oliphant. “Pittsburgh is unique in my experience in terms of the deep relationships that people form and the capacity to come together and help each other.”

He says it'll be interesting to move from a region with many strong foundations that collaborate well to a city that doesn’t have philanthropies in the same number or financial strength.

In considering the future of philanthropy in Pittsburgh, Oliphant says it looks promising. He points to the success of Giving Tuesday, and other direct aid efforts that have grown popular over the years.

“We’re at a really difficult moment in our country around our relationship with institutions, and that means a lot of negativity about the role of government, about the role of public leaders, about the role of institutions like foundations,” says Oliphant. “I think we turn on these institutions at our peril because they are a source of carrying forward the wisdom and the good things that define this community and define our country.”

WESA has received financial support from the Heinz Endowments.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Corrected: December 6, 2021 at 12:58 PM EST
In a previous version of this interview that only appeared online, we incorrectly referred to Oliphant’s title. He is the president of the Heinz Endowments, not the president and CEO.
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