Omicron arrives in US: CDC finds first case in California as Biden says there is no cause for panic
The first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant has been detected in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci announced on Wednesday.
The case was identified by the San Francisco Departments of Public Health in California and confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Fauci said the individual had returned from South Africa on November 22 and tested positive a week later on November 29.
He or she was fully vaccinated, but had not received a booster, and is currently experiencing mild symptoms.
‘The individual is self quarantining and all close contacts have been contacted and all close contacts thus far have tested negative,’ Fauci told reporters during a briefing.
‘The individual was fully vaccinated and experienced mild symptoms which are improving at this point.
At a separate press conference, Governor Gavin Newsom said the patient is between the ages of 18 and 49.
Details emerged minutes after President Joe Biden warned the nation that scientists may not know the full impact of the Omicron variant for weeks even as he sought to reassure Americans there was no need to panic over the new strain of COVID-19.
The president’s pandemic approval numbers have sunk underwater in recent days and his strategy of imposing vaccine mandates has been upended by the courts.
But, with his administration readying new restrictions on international travelers, he admitted there was still a lot to learn about the Omicron variant.
‘We’re going to know in the next several weeks just not only how transmissible the disease is but how extensive it is, how dangerous it is and what damage it does, and most importantly, whether the vaccines we have are capable of dealing with this virus,’ he said at the White House.
‘So I think the jury’s still out.’
Dr Anthony Fauci announced on Wednesday that the first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in the U.S. was detected in California
The unnamed patient returned from South Africa on November 22 and tested positive a week later on November 29, bringing the total countries where cases have been found to 21
According to a press release from the San Francisco Emergency Operations Joint Information Center, said health officials are still speaking to the patient about whom they were in contact with.
The statement also said that health officials believe there are several more cases that have yet to be identifired.
‘We are still learning about the Omicron variant, but we are not back to square one with this disease,’ said Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of Health, 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.
‘We will stay alert and vigilant and do what we need to do to protect ourselves. This means getting vaccinated, getting your booster, wearing a mask indoors, and taking the other steps we know help slow the spread.’
The Omicron variant was first identified by South African researchers last week and is believed to have originated in Botswana.
It has 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein, used by the coronavirus to enter and infect cells.
By comparison, the Delta variant – still the predominant variant in the U.S. – has two mutations on the spike protein.
Early evidence suggests it is more transmissible than previous variants but it is unclear if it causes more severe illness or death.
New COVID-19 cases in South Africa doubled on Wednesday from 4,373 to 8,561
Doctors in South Africa have reported anecdotally that patients infected with Omicron appear to have mild symptoms, such as a dry cough, fever and night sweats, but say they don’t want to draw conclusions just yet.
However, South Africa’s daily Covid cases have been rapidly rising, doubling in a day, but hospital admissions have remain flat.
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows there were 8,561 new Covid cases recorded on Wednesday, a jump of 95.8 percent in a single day from 4,373 and 571.5 percent in a week.
Genetic analysis of Omicron’s mutations has raised fears that the new variant could be the most dangerous and infectious variety yet.
The U.S. moved on Monday to shut down travel from eight southern African nations including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The Biden administration is weighing stringent new restrictions on international travelers.
Approval of President Biden’s handling of the pandemic has plunged since June, according to Fox News polling, and could sink further as his administration faces up to Omicron threat
But the president sought to offer a voice of calm, as he again told Americans that vaccinations offered the best protection.
‘As I said, this new variant is a cause for concern but not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccines in the world the best medicines, the best scientists,’ he said as he prefaced remarks on the economy at the White House with an update on the pandemic.
‘We’re learning more every single day and will fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.
‘So let me repeat what the doctors and scientists have affirmed: The best protection against Omicron is getting a booster shot.’
He said 135 million Americans are currently eligible for a booster but only 40 million had received the extra shot as of Wednesday.
‘Go get your booster shot today,’ Biden said to people who got their second dose more than six months ago.
‘And if you’re not vaccinated, now’s the time to get vaccinated and take your children to get vaccinated.’
The new variant is the latest challenge to Biden’s presidency, which has been buffeted by repeated setbacks.
Biden has said the new variant is a ’cause for concern not a cause for panic,’ and is planning to outline his winter pandemic strategy on Thursday
‘The new Omicron variant is a real threat to Biden’s standing with the public,’ Clifford Young, of the Ipsos polling company, told Fox News on Tuesday.
‘He won the election on Covid, surfed the Covid wave for the first part of the year and was hurt by the Delta variant.
‘Omicron could further weaken the president heading into the midterms.’
The most recent Fox News poll found that 48 percent of respondents approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, compared with 49 percent who disapprove.
His ratings have crashed since earlier this year when 64 percent approved and 34 percent disapproved in May and June.
And the president has suffered setbacks this week, with three major court losses this week freezing vaccine rules across the country.
His approval numbers will likely worsen further, said Young.
‘America has become more optimistic with anticipation of an end to Covid,’ he said.
‘And any check on this trend will negatively impact confidence overall and in Biden more specifically.’
Leaders around the world are scrambling for an Omicron strategy as they wait for scientists to assess the risk and for pharmaceutical companies to lay the groundwork for new vaccines or boosters.
On Monday, Biden said the new variant was a ’cause for concern not a cause for panic.’
A day later he said: ‘On Thursday, I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight Covid this winter, not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.’
A World Health Organization official offered grounds for hope on Wednesday, saying that most Omicron were mild and that there was no evidence the new variant has any impact on vaccine protection against serious illness
A spokesperson for the global health agency said early data suggest the mutant strain is better at infecting people than Delta, even the fully vaccinated.
Biden is considering whether to mandate a seven-day quarantine for all travelers returning to the U.S. as his administration ponders its response to the new variant
It’s not clear when the new policies would take effect, but one of the officials said it could be as soon as within a week as the world scrambles to reckon with the impact of Omicron
Travelers would not be able to forego the quarantine, even with a negative Covid test, and could be fined for flouting it
But there was no sign yet that existing vaccines will be any less effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, the official told Reuters.
Even so, Biden’s strategy is under intense pressure as opponents take to their case to the courts.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Louisiana halted a national mandate that certain health care workers be vaccinated.
That came a day after the mandate was blocked in 10 states by a court in Missouri and shortly after a Kentucky court overturned another rule aimed at federal contractors in three states.
In the meantime, details have emerged of plans for handling international arrivals with officials considering whether to force all travelers to quarantine for seven days.
Travelers would not be able to forgo the potential quarantine mandate, even with a negative COVID test or full vaccination and booster shot, according to the Washington Post.
Any imposition of financial penalties for refusing to comply would mark the first time federal fines are linked to quarantine and testing measures for U.S. travelers.
Biden’s tentative plan would also require everyone entering the country to be tested one day before boarding flights, regardless of their vaccination status or country from which they’re leaving. Another requirement could force all travelers to get tested again within three to five days of arrival.
While the U.S. currently requires coronavirus testing of all travelers entering the country, regardless of vaccination status, vaccinated travelers have three days before departing to have their test conducted. Unvaccinated travelers currently must conduct their test no more than one day before their flight.
It’s not clear when the new policies would take effect, but one of the officials said it could be as soon as next week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proposed the two testing mandates in a draft public health order that is currently being reviewed by Biden and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The quarantine measures are not in the CDC’s draft, but could be added later if they gain more support, the anonymous officials told the Washington Post.
The CDC is considering a range of measures to protect Americans against the omicron variant, such as ‘how to make international travel as safe as possible, including pre-departure testing closer to the time of flight, and considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines,’ CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House Covid briefing Tuesday.
She added that the CDC was also expanding surveillance programs at four major airports to test for Covid from specific international arrivals.
Celine Gounder, a health expert who was part of Biden’s Covid-19 response transition team, urged the administration to put forth stricter measures. ‘If it were up to me, to fly you should be fully vaccinated and we should also be testing 24 hours prior’ to flight,’ she told the Washington Post.
When news first broke of the spread of the Omicron variant, the U.S. and a number of other countries immediately banned travel from the affected regions of South Africa. Specifically, the U.S. barred travelers coming from any of eight southern African nations in the past 14 days.
Since then, the variant has been detected in at least 19 other countries around the globe. There have been no confirmed cases in the US, but experts warn the variant is almost certainly already in the United States.
Scientists say it will take two weeks to truly work out how effective jabs are against the variant, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta. The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it’s less clear how it will impact hospitalizations and deaths.
Biden is scheduled to visit the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday, where he is expected to explain his winter Covid-19 plan and said that he does not plan to implement shutdowns or lockdowns.
He has pushed for people to get fully vaccinated and to get their booster shot to be protected against Omicron and suggested people were masks while indoors in crowded conditions.
Covid cases in South Africa DOUBLE in a day as test positivity climbs to 16.5%
By Emily Craig, Health Reporter for MailOnline
South Africa’s Covid cases have doubled in a day, but hospital admissions remained flat amid fears of an Omicron-driven wave of infections.
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows 8,561 new Covid cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, a jump of 95.8 per cent in a single day and 571.5 per cent in a week.
Cases have been soaring in the country since the super mutant Omicron variant emerged, which experts say appears to be more infectious than Delta and has mutations that may allow it to dodge vaccine protection.
Some 51,977 people in the country took a Covid test and 16.5 per cent of them tested positive for the virus. For comparison, 10.2 per cent of tests taken yesterday were positive and last Wednesday the figure stood at just 3.6 per cent.
Meanwhile, Covid hospital admissions and deaths increased by around a quarter in a week.
But despite fears about Omicron, South Africa is still recording far fewer overall Covid cases compared to its population size than both the UK and US.
Figures from the Oxford University research platform Our World in Data show South Africa has 46 cases per million people compared to 628 in the UK and 246 in the US. Cases are rising sharply in South Africa but are starting at a low base.
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows 8,561 people in South Africa tested positive in the last 24 hours — increasing six-fold in a week and nearly doubling on yesterday’s number — equating to a positivity rate of 16.5 per cent. South Africa has recorded 2.9million cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Covid deaths have increased from 22 last Wednesday to 28 today, marking a 27 per cent rise. The vast majority of cases are concentrated in Gauteng, the epicentre of the outbreak, in the north east
And just a quarter of South Africans have had two Covid vaccine doses, which makes interpreting the data challenging. In the city of Tshwane in northern Gauteng, 87 per cent of hospital admissions this week were among the unvaccinated.
For comparison, 70 per cent of people in the UK are double-jabbed and the figure is as high as 80 per cent in some European nations.
The figures come after health chiefs today said the variant — scientifically known as B.1.1.529 — may cause less severe illness than previous strains.
A World Health Organization official said there is no evidence Omicron has any impact on vaccine effectiveness against serious illness and those infected are reporting mild symptoms.
And health chiefs in Botswana — where Omicron is believed to have emerged — revealed that 16 out of 19 of its confirmed cases were asymptomatic and symptoms are ‘very, very mild’ among those who have them.
The graph shows the number of Covid-infected people hospitalised in South Africa each week. Last week, 1,027 people were admitted to public and private hospitals, equating to an average of 146 people per day. Some 552 people have been hospitalised with the virus in the first three days of this week, equating to 184 admissions per day, marking an increase of 26 per cent on last week
Meanwhile, Israeli officials claimed that a booster dose of Pfizer’s vaccine provides up to 90 per cent protection against severe illness from Omicron.
But experts warn it will be at least two weeks until they have a better understanding of what impact the variant could have.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the WHO, said ‘surveillance bias’ could be underestimating the severity of Omicron, because young people have been the main spreaders of the strain.
And SAGE, No10’s scientific advisors, warned Britain should brace for a ‘potentially very significant wave with associated hospitalisations’ this winter if the worst estimates about Omicron turn out to be true.