The omicron COVID-19 variant is in the U.S.
The White House and public health officials said Wednesday afternoon that the case was confirmed in a traveler who returned to California’s Bay Area after a trip to South Africa.
The person, who was identified as being between 18 and 49, is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive and all close contacts have been contacted and tested negative. The City and County of San Francisco COVID-19 Emergency Operation Center said the traveler is a resident of San Francisco who returned on Nov. 25.
“We are still learning about the omicron variant, but we are not back to square one with this disease,” Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said in a statement. “From what we know now, San Francisco is relatively well-positioned to handle COVID-19 and its variants because of our high vaccination rates, our high booster uptake, and other local health measures such as masking and testing.”
In a statement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained that the individual was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving. Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, told reporters that the individual, who had the full two doses of the Moderna vaccine, tested positive on Nov. 29 and had yet to receive a booster shot.
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“We knew it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” he said.
“We know what we need to do to protect people. Get vaccinated, if you’re not already vaccinated. Get boosted if you’ve been vaccinated for more than six months with an mRNA or two months with [Johnson & Johnson] and all the other things we’ve been talking about,” Fauci continued, adding that there are currently no other cases the CDC is investigating as omicron-linked.
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The White House echoed Fauci’s comments in a statement released later in the day, saying the administration is “prepared to meet this challenge with science and speed.”
“The president’s medical team continues to believe that existing vaccines will provide some level of protection against severe illness from omicron and individuals who have gotten boosters have even stronger protection,” the administration said. “As such, we urge all adults to get their booster shots and to get themselves and their kids vaccinated, if they haven’t already.”
The vaccine has been proven to reduce the risk of severe illness and death, and Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that it is reasonable to believe it will offer at least some protection against the omicron variant.
White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients also urged Americans to get vaccinated, saying that the president’s medical team “continues to believe that existing vaccines will provide some level of protection against severe illness from omicron, and individuals who have gotten boosters have even stronger protection.”
“This new variant is cause for continued vigilance, not panic,” he said in a statement. “We know what it takes to limit the spread of COVID: Get vaccinated, get boosted, and take public health measures like masking and distancing.”
The news comes as scientists continue to study the risks posed by the new strain of the virus – and there are still many unknowns, including its transmissibility, whether or not it has the ability to evade immune response and the vaccine, and whether it makes people more seriously ill.
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The Biden administration in late November announced restrictions to travel from southern Africa where the variant was first identified and had been widespread. Clusters of cases have also been identified in more than two dozen other nations.
The CDC was moving to tighten U.S. testing rules for travelers from overseas, including requiring a test for all travelers within a day of boarding a flight to the U.S. regardless of vaccination status. It was also considering mandating post-arrival testing.
Officials said those measures would only “buy time” for the country to learn more about the new variant and to take appropriate precautions, but that given its transmissibility its arrival in the U.S. was inevitable.
Fox News’ Bradford Betz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.