US reports first Omicron case, in a California traveler

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WASHINGTON — The Omicron coronavirus variant was first reported in the United States on Wednesday from a traveler who had been to South Africa as scientists around the world study whether the variant is more transmissible or more virulent than its predecessors.

The patient, a San Francisco resident, is in isolation and aggressive contact tracing is underway, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement. The person had been fully vaccinated, but without a booster shot, and showed mild symptoms that improved, the agency said.

The discovery prompted the Biden administration to renew calls for everyone to be fully vaccinated and, if eligible, given a booster. It also came when the CDC asked airlines for the names and contact information of all passengers who had boarded flights to the United States since Nov. 29 and who had been in southern Africa in the past two weeks.

The World Health Organization has warned that the risk of the variant, which was first identified in South Africa on Thursday, is “very high”. More than 20 countries have discovered the variant.

California health officials said the state was ramping up coronavirus testing at airports, focusing on arrivals from countries identified by the CDC as possible sources of the variant. Governor Gavin Newsom said California wouldn’t step up public health restrictions, at least in the short term, but that “we have to assume it’s in other states as well.”

“There is no need to panic, but we must remain vigilant,” he said in a statement. “The best we can do is get us vaccinated if you haven’t already, get your booster and wear your mask indoors. As we learn more about this variant, get tested if you have symptoms and stay home if you’re sick.

On Thursday, President Biden is expected to announce how the government will step up its fight against the virus during the winter months, including tougher international travel restrictions and efforts to accelerate vaccine and vaccine availability.

Answers about whether Omicron is more contagious or deadly remain elusive as scientists around the world race to map its characteristics — including more mutations than the Delta variant — and try to determine whether the vaccines will prove effective. in protecting people from infection or serious hospitalization. Officials in South Africa have said they know of no deaths linked to the variant, but health experts say it’s too early to assess its true dangers.

Still, the rise of Omicron over the holiday season, as Americans prepared to gather with relatives, raised the grim prospect of another wave of a pandemic that has severely tested the patience of a weary public, unparalleled economic damage and political damage. increase division.

dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, spoke to reporters shortly after the variant’s discovery was announced, expressing optimism that the United States would eventually emerge from the pandemic’s grip.

“This is coming to an end,” he said. “I promise you this will end.”

Public health officials around the world have been saying for days they expect the new, mutated form of the virus to make its way to the United States soon, despite the Biden and other governments imposing travel bans on international travelers from eight southern countries. . African countries late last month.

The scientific confirmation of the variant’s presence in the United States nevertheless came as a shock to Mr Biden’s efforts to deliver on his campaign promise to end the pandemic quickly and definitively. At the White House on Wednesday, he said “we are learning more every day” and promised the administration would “fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

Shortly afterwards, Dr. Fauci told reporters that confirmation of the new variant in the United States should convince unvaccinated Americans to get shots immediately.

“We have 60 million people in this country who are unvaccinated and eligible to be vaccinated,” he said. ‘Let’s get them vaccinated. Let’s vaccinate people, give them a boost. Let’s get the kids vaccinated.”

dr. Fauci also urged caution, saying health officials didn’t know much about the new variant.

“There’s a lot of information evolving right now,” he said.

Scientists have said that Omicron carries more than 50 genetic mutations that could theoretically make it more infectious and less vulnerable to the body’s immune defenses than previous variants. More than 30 of the mutations are in the peak of the virus, a protein on its surface. Vaccines train the body’s immune defenses to attack and attack these spikes.

Available vaccines can still provide substantial protection against serious illness and death after infection with the variant, and federal officials are calling on vaccinated people to get booster shots. The makers of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their dosages if necessary, but that will take time.

In California, Mr Newsom said the infected person had not been hospitalized and other people the person came into contact with have not tested positive at this time. The governor said the patient traveled from South Africa, landed in the United States on Nov. 22, and began experiencing mild symptoms on Nov. 25. The person was tested for the coronavirus on November 28 and received a positive result a day later.

Within a day, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, determined that it was the Omicron variant.

The person had received two doses of the Moderna vaccine but was within six months of its effectiveness and had not received a booster, Mr Newsom said.

San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed said in a statement that the city had “one of the highest vaccination rates and lowest death rates in the country because of the actions our residents have taken since the start of this pandemic to keep each other safe. ”

The city’s health director, Dr. Grant Colfax, added that “we are still learning about the Omicron variant, but we are not back to square one with this disease.”

About 79 percent of California residents have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Cases and hospital admissions have largely declined after a summer surge, largely driven by the Delta variant.

In the Bay Area, where counties have some of the highest vaccination rates in the state, long-standing mask mandates had recently been relaxed or lifted as the spread of the virus slowed. Local governments in the state have begun requiring businesses to verify vaccination status before entry, and more workers have been required to get their shots — a trend officials have attributed to helping slow the spread.

During the pandemic, San Francisco County has avoided the levels of crisis that hit some of the state’s other cities, such as Los Angeles, as residents enthusiastically adhered to restrictions, wore masks and got vaccinated. Seventy-seven percent of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health.

dr. Bob M. Wachter, the chair of UCSF’s division of medicine, said the case would not be the last in California. But for now, he said, “I don’t change my behavior based on a single or a handful of cases.”

Following news of the variant’s spread in South Africa, countries around the world have curtailed air traffic to and from the region — measures officials there described as unnecessarily punitive, especially in light of Western countries failing to adopt them. managed to deliver sufficient vaccines and logistical support to the mainland.

Still, the CDC considered plans to tighten requirements for screenings and coronavirus testing, such as asking travelers to give a negative result taken within 24 hours of departure, among other steps.

While the agency hasn’t announced any changes yet, travelers continued to struggle with preventative testing and reservation changes.

“Too bad, because travel has just reopened,” said Giritharan Sripathy, who was due to fly from London to New York on Thursday.

Dutch officials said on Tuesday they had identified cases of the variant a week before Friday, when 13 passengers arriving on flights from South Africa tested positive for it, indicating that Omicron was already present in the Netherlands.

In South Africa, the variant accounts for most of the new daily cases reported in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, which is home to some 15 million people, and in the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

On Wednesday at the White House, Dr. Fauci said he was “not so sure” that new testing requirements for international travelers, which government officials are currently weighing, would have helped tackle the matter sooner. The patient had a test taken immediately after he began experiencing what he described as mild symptoms.

dr. Fauci added that it was possible the federal government could change its definition of “fully vaccinated” to require international travelers to be given booster shots before entering the United States.

When asked whether Americans should feel free to attend holiday parties and drink unmasked drinks, he said it depended on the size of the gathering.

“In a holiday season situation, indoor-like environments with family you know have been vaccinated, people you know, you can feel safe without wearing a mask and having dinner, having a reception,” he said. dr. Fauci. But in larger public facilities where it’s unclear whether everyone has been vaccinated, he said, people are required to wear masks except to eat or drink.

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, Shawn Hubler from Sacramento and Roni Caryn Rabin from New York. Reporting contributed by Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington, Jill Cowan from Los Angeles, and Aina J. Khan from London.

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