A sign outside of a hospital advertises COVID-19 testing on November 19, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Minnesota public health authorities confirmed Thursday the second U.S. case of the omicron Covid variant, in a resident who recently returned from New York City, the state’s department of health said.
The man, who was fully vaccinated and has since recovered, traveled to New York City to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center Nov. 19-21, the department said in a statement. He developed symptoms shortly after returning and tested positive on Nov. 22.
Hours later, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis confirmed a third U.S. case in a woman who recently traveled to southern Africa and returned to the state. The patient was fully vaccinated but had not received a booster shot, he said at press conference. She is experiencing mild symptoms and is isolating at home, Polis said.
The governor said the extent of community transmission in the U.S. is unclear, but health authorities believe it is “very small” in Colorado. Polis said the state screens wastewater and has not yet detected omicron in the analysis. Colorado also runs genetic sequencing on about 15% of its Covid tests searching for variants and hasn’t detected other omicron cases yet, he said.
“So if it was prevalent, we would know — it doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent,” Polis said.
The first omicron case in the U.S. was confirmed in California Wednesday in a person who recently returned to San Francisco from a trip to South Africa.
New York health officials haven’t yet confirmed any cases in the state, Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters at a press conference in Manhattan on Thursday.
New York Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said it’s just a matter of time before an omicron case is confirmed somewhere in the state. “We now have an exposure. We fully expect that it will be detected in coming days,” she said.
New York City Health Commissioner David Chokshi said in a tweet that it wasn’t likely an isolated case, “meaning that there is ongoing community spread of the Omicron variant in NYC.”
Hochul said conference attendees were required to get vaccinated, and she recommended that they all get tested. She said the anime convention organizers have contact information for all attendees, so that will simplify contact tracing to monitor any potential outbreaks.
“Everyone had to be vaccinated in order to participate in the first place,” she said. “That’s why we anticipate if people who test positive, at least, based on this first individual, that the symptoms will be fairly minor.”
Hochul said New York is taking proper precautions and is not overreacting to the omicron variant arriving in the U.S. She said bars and restaurants are packed in Midtown Manhattan, which shows people feel safe enough to return to their normal social lives. “We’re encouraging that,” the governor said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a statement Thursday, said it is working closely with public health authorities in Minnesota and New York City to investigate the latest confirmed omicron case. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the U.S. has expanded genomic sequencing over the past nine months to identify new variants.
“We have more tools to fight the variant than we had at this time last year from vaccines to boosters to the prevention strategies that we know work including masking in indoor public settings, washing your hands frequently and physical distancing,” Walensky said. “These methods work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, no matter the genetic sequence.”
The patient in California who was the first to test positive for omicron in the U.S. was also fully vaccinated, has mild symptoms and is improving, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. The person, who is between 18 and 49 years old, had not received a booster dose because they were not six months out from their original vaccination course, he said.
Health officials in the U.S. and around the world are concerned that omicron is more transmissible and may evade the protection provided by currently available vaccines to some degree. The variant has some 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to human cells.
“The molecular profile of the kinds of mutations that you see [in omicron] would suggest that it might be more transmissible and that it might elude some of the protection of vaccines,” White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters on Wednesday. “But we don’t know that now.”
The Biden administration Thursday laid out a plan to combat omicron and a possible winter surge of the predominant delta variant of the virus. The White House is requiring all in-bound international travelers to test for Covid within 24 hours of their departure. The administration is extending mask requirements on domestic flights and public transit through March 18. It is also expanding access to free at-home Covid tests.
The World Health Organization on Wednesday said omicron has been confirmed in at least 23 countries worldwide. The variant was first identified in Botswana last month and brought to the attention of the WHO by public health officials in South Africa.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid response, said Wednesday that hospitalizations are rising in South Africa but more data is needed before drawing conclusions about whether omicron causes more severe disease.
The CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna say it will take about two weeks to gather enough data to determine what impact omicron’s mutations have on the effectiveness of the current vaccines. They have said it would take until early 2022 to develop a shot that specifically targets the variant. However, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said the company can roll out a higher-dosage booster shot much quicker.