(CN) — The California and San Francisco departments of public health confirmed Wednesday a fully vaccinated traveler who returned to the U.S. from South Africa on Nov. 22 was infected with the new Covid-19 omicron variant.
The person has thus far experienced only mild symptoms and has remained under self-quarantine since testing positive. Their close contacts have also been traced and as of now none of them have tested positive for the virus.
“We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, during a briefing Wednesday.
The University of California, San Francisco, ran genomic sequencing on a sample of the virus taken from the person, which was confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the first omicron case detected in the United States. The agency said it has been “actively monitoring and preparing for” the new variant, though they say the delta variant remains the dominant strain in the country for now.
“It’s not surprising in many respects that California is announcing the first case,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom during a press conference Wednesday in the Central Valley. “This state is the birthplace of biotech, of life sciences — UCSF is one of the leading genomic sequencing institutions in the world. We are blessed to have their partnership and their expertise, and we have, as you know, perhaps the most robust testing program and protocols in the nation.”
California is also the most populous U.S. state, with nearly 40 million of the nation's 332 million calling the Golden State home.
Newsom also revealed that the infected person is a resident of San Francisco between the ages of 18 and 49, and reinforced that the individual has not been hospitalized, is doing well and has only experienced mild symptoms so far. Experts say the discovery of the new variant emphasizes the importance of getting vaccinated and receiving a booster shot to prevent major symptoms from occurring.
Newsom noted 92.1% of Californians 18 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine — 59.6 million doses in all — and 5.8 million booster shots have been given so far. He also highlighted the importance of all eligible residents getting a booster shot to prevent the spread of future variants in the state, as well as the continued importance of wearing masks and washing hands.
“We must remain vigilant against this variant, but it is not a cause for panic,” the California and San Francisco departments of public health 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Since first being discovered in November, the omicron variant has been making its way from region to region and has so far been identified in nearly two dozen countries around the world. Officials fear the spread of the new variant may increase now that people are spending more time together indoors as cold weather returns.
It still remains to be seen whether omicron can spread more easily than past variants, and how resistant it may be to the existing vaccines on offer. This week, Fauci explained the omicron variant has around 50 mutations, far more than previous Covid-19 variants, which could make it more unpredictable than past versions of the virus.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said Wednesday that the omicron variant being identified in a vaccinated individual shouldn’t deter anyone from getting vaccinated because the person’s mild symptoms is a testament to the continued effectiveness of the vaccines. He also asked that Californians continue to wear masks, and to do so properly with a well-fitting mask.
“Get vaccinated, get boosted if you’re eligible now, don’t wait,” Ghaly pleaded. “There’s a lot of talk about a variant-specific boost — that is being prepared — thank God we have the ability with our pharmaceutical partners to develop rapidly additional therapeutics and vaccines, but we ask Californians who are eligible to get vaccinated and boosted to do that immediately. Stay home when you’re sick, and if you’ve been exposed or have symptoms get tested.”
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