California Confirms First Case of Omicron Coronavirus Variant

The first U.S. case of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been confirmed in San Francisco, again placing California at the center of the nation’s pandemic response.

Authorities said the infected person returned from South Africa on November 22. A few days after arriving, the person started to feel sick and was tested.

On Monday, the result came back positive and the virus sample was then analyzed and found to be the last named strain of coronavirus.

The person was fully immunized and had mild symptoms that did not require hospitalization. Officials said the individual’s condition was improving on Wednesday.

There are no signs of a larger epidemic in the Bay Area yet, and state and federal officials have stressed the need to be cautious rather than dismayed.

In California, political and health leaders remain confident that the new variant will not require the reimposition of lockdowns or other restrictions. On the contrary, they said, this latest twist in the nearly 2-year-old pandemic reinforces the message they’ve been proclaiming for a long time: more people should get vaccinated and boosted once they’re eligible.

“There is more panic than information surrounding this new variant,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a briefing Wednesday. “And that just means we have to keep an open mind, but maintain our vigilance.”

The arrival of the variant was not unexpected. First detected last month, the strain has already been found in around two dozen countries around the world.

“We knew it was only a matter of time before the first case of Omicron was detected in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States government’s foremost infectious disease expert, said on Wednesday, during a briefing.

The fact that the first confirmed case of Omicron was found in California should also not be a cause for alarm, officials said, given the state’s robust efforts in genomic testing and monitoring.

“It’s no surprise that we actually have a case here in California, and we expect that over time we will have additional cases,” said Dr Mark Ghaly, Secretary of State for health and social services. “And that is why we must remain vigilant.”

Officials said the infected San Francisco resident is self-isolating. Close contacts have been identified and have tested negative so far, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The case was confirmed by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, with genomic sequencing performed at UC San Francisco.

“The person recently traveled to South Africa and developed symptoms on their return,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco director of health. “And they did the right thing and got tested and reported their travel history.”

Colfax said it has no plans to change the COVID-19 measures that are already in place, adding: “This is not where we were 20 months ago. We are in a much better place.

San Francisco, he noted, has a high vaccination rate and has confidence in existing protocols.

“Our requirements for masks and vaccines are among the strictest in the country. These efforts have been very effective in helping us slow the spread of the virus, ”Colfax said.

Citing privacy, health officials have released few details about the individual. Newsom said the person was between 18 and 49 years old.

“We must remain vigilant against this variant, but it is not a cause for panic,” the departments of public health in California and San Francisco said in a joint statement. “To help detect and prevent the spread of this new variant, the State of California is increasing COVID-19 testing at our airports for arrivals from countries identified by the CDC.

“We recognize that everyone is exhausted and the announcement of a new variant can be overwhelming,” the statement continued. “It’s important that we collectively focus on the things we know to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. Individuals should be vaccinated and boosted; wear your mask indoors; get tested if you have symptoms; and stay home if you are sick.

Yet the arrival of the highly mutated variant comes in what was already shaping up to be a particularly precarious period in California. Officials have long feared that the double blow of the end-of-year holiday season and colder weather are increasingly pushing people to congregate in crowded indoor locations where the risk of coronavirus transmission is particularly high.

But it remains to be seen whether Omicron ultimately turns out to be more of a speed bump or a hindrance on California’s path to recovery from a pandemic.

Similar to San Francisco, Los Angeles County and state-level officials have also indicated that they are not currently considering significant new coronavirus restrictions in light of the emergence of the new variant.

Asked specifically about the possibility of further business or school closures, Newsom said: “None of us want this to happen. I certainly don’t want that to happen. And I see no indication at this time that it is in our immediate future, as long as we continue our efforts at the head of the nation. “

“It’s really important that people understand that we have an agency in this pandemic,” he said. “We are not spectators in this pandemic. Our decisions will determine our fate and our future.

Much remains unknown about Omicron. The answers to the most pressing questions – whether the variant spreads more easily, can cause serious illness, or sidestep some of the protection offered by vaccines – likely won’t be known for a few weeks.

And while the enemy may be new, public health officials say the battle plan is familiar. The central focus of these efforts remains to get as many people vaccinated as possible and to ensure that adults receive booster shots when the time comes.

“We don’t yet know everything we need to know about the Omicron variant. But we know that vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect you against serious illness and complications from all known variants of SARS-CoV-2 to date, ”said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, at the time. a briefing on Tuesday.

As experts rush to identify all of Omicron’s ramifications, the fact that it contains more mutations than any previous variant is troubling.

While not all mutations are inherently bad news, scientists fear that some of Omicron’s may make the virus more transmissible or resistant to immunity generated by vaccines or past infections.

“What caught everyone’s attention was the sheer number of mutations – around 50, many more than previous variants. And some, depending on the molecular configuration, are expected to impact transmissibility and binding. antibodies, ”Fauci said earlier this week.

It is not clear, however, whether Omicron can spread as easily as the highly infectious Delta variant, which remains the dominant strain in both California and the United States.

“Pending these data, the effect of this variant on transmission, disease severity and efficacy of current vaccines, treatments remain speculative,” he said.

What is already known, however, was troubling enough that the World Health Organization was quick to name Omicron as a “variant of concern.”

“The emergence of the highly mutated variant of Omicron underlines how perilous and precarious our situation is,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. a video statement On Monday.

The world “lives in a cycle of panic and neglect” where “the hard-earned gains could disappear in an instant,” he said.

“We shouldn’t need another wake-up call. We should all be well aware of the threat of this virus, ”he said.

Times writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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