The Omicron COVID-19 variant continues to spread around the United States, but early signs on the strain’s severity provide the nation with some much needed positive news.
Late Sunday night, a case of the Omicron variant was sequenced in Georgia, making the Peach state the 17th to find record at least one case of the variant within its borders, and bringing that nationwide case count up to 39.
The new strain has quickly made its way around the nation in the two weeks since it was first discovered by South African health officials.
Omicron is a highly mutated virus strain that is believed to be the most contagious version of Covid yet, and can potentially even evade immunity provided by the vaccines.
In the time since the new variant’s discovery, cases in South Africa have skyrocketed, though Omicron cases are believed to be relatively mild compared to those of other strains.
One South African health official reports that nearly 25 percent of Covid tests in the country are coming back positive, up from only two percent before the variant’s discovery.
The new Omicron COVID-19 variant has been sequenced more than 30 times in 17 U.S. states only a dozen days after it was first detected by South African officials. New York, and specifically New York City, has become a hotspot for the new variant, with eight cases detected in the state and one Minnesota case being found in a man who had recently traveled there
Cases have spiked in South Africa since Omicron was first sequenced in late November, jumping 30-fold from around 300 a day to more than 10,000 per day. President Cyril Ramaphosa reported Monday that nearly one in every four Covid tests in the nation are coming up positive. Pictured: A woman in Soweto, South Africa, receives a COVID-19 test on December 2
Georgia joined California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin on Sunday night.
The state’s health department reports that the individual had recently traveled to South Africa.
It was the first case in Georgia, but the second among a resident of the state, as New Jersey officials detected a case of the variant in someone traveling from the state on Friday.
Cases of Omicron have been few and far between in the U.S. so far, though that may be because of the lag in sequencing of cases.
Only five states have detected more than one case, though health officials warn the variant is more prevalent than official numbers may make it seem.
California was the first state to detect a case of the variant last week, when San Francisco officials found the variant in a person who had recently traveled to South Africa.
On Friday, the state discovered five more Omicron cases in people who had recently attended a wedding in Wisconsin, and in total seven cases have been recorded in the state.
Wisconsin officials also sequenced a case on Saturday, though it is not tied to the wedding, and instead in another man that had recently traveled to South Africa.
New York is the leader in Omicron cases, as of Monday morning, with eight cases having been sequenced in the state, including seven in New York City.
Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, announced Monday that he would soon implement strict vaccine requirements in the city that would also include children aged five to 11, a first for the U.S.
Under the new restrictions, children must be vaccinated to take part in some extracurricular activities at school, and must show proof of vaccination to dine indoors, go to the gym or take part in some entertainment activities.
Over the weekend, the world eclipsed 1,000 confirmed cases of the new strain just only a dozen days since its discovery.
South Africa and the United Kingdom account for half of those cases combined.
South Africa has sequenced 228 cases, though officials believe that over 50,000 in the country are likely tof the new strain.
The nation had its Covid situation largely under control only a few weeks ago, but it has quickly spiraled into a fourth wave.
Currently, the country is averaging over 10,000 new cases every day, up from only 300 cases per day in mid-November, a 30-fold increase.
‘Over the last week, the number of daily infections has increased five-fold,’ Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa, said in a newsletter Monday.
‘Nearly a quarter of all COVID-19 tests now come back positive. Compare this to two weeks ago, when the proportion of positive tests was sitting at around 2 percent.’
Hospitalizations in the Gauteng province, where the variant was first sequenced, are up as well with 2,100 people being admitted for Covid-related reasons last week – up 230 percent in the last two weeks.
Ramaphosa is urging his constituents to get the COVID-19 vaccine – as only 40 percent have received at least one shot of the jab and under 25 percent are fully vaccinated – to protect themselves from the new strain.
For comparison, nearly 60 percent of Americans and nearly 70 percent of Britons are fully vaccinated.
Unlike other African countries, South Africa has great access to the vaccines and the supplies necessary to distribute the shot to its citizens.
The issue causing low vaccination rate is general hesitancy within the population.
‘South Africa now has sufficient supplies of vaccines and we have vaccine stations set up in every part of the country,’ he said.
‘As every day passes, and as infections rise, the reasons to get vaccinated become more compelling and the need becomes ever more urgent.’
He is also calling to enforce mask mandates in private businesses around the nation, and has hinted that he plans to bring forth other Covid related restrictions to address the recent surge.
Other African nations are seeing rises in Omicron cases detected as well, with 50 recorded in Zimbabwe, 33 in Ghana, 23 in Botswana and 18 in Namibia.
The United Kingdom is now the world’s leader in sequenced Omicron cases, recording 246 infections caused by the mutant strain as of Monday afternoon, and officials believe the true number is in the thousands.
English health officials also report that 55 percent of people infected with the strain in the country are fully vaccinated, a worrying sign.
Some fear that the new strain will be able to evade vaccine protection due to the high number of mutations it has, especially on its spike protein.
The variant has more the 50 mutations from the original novel Covid strain, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone – the part of the virus that infects a human’s cells and is targeted by the vaccines.
British officials are warning that this strain could cause a massive surge over the winter months, and put stress on hospitals through the holiday season.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not rule out potentially instituting lockdowns or other Covid mandates to respond to the threat of the new variant.
‘We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalizations,’ he said.
The UK is now averaging 45,000 new daily cases, up from 40,000 two weeks ago.
Other European nations, like Denmark, 32 cases; Portugal, 28; Austria, 28; and France, 25; also are seeing increases in the spread of the variant.
In total, nearly 50 countries have sequenced at least one case of the Omicron variant, as of Monday morning.
There are some hopeful signs that this strain of the virus may not be as bad as others, though, even though it is likely more infectious.
South African officials reported last week that Omicron infections they had detected were surprisingly mild compared to those of other strains.
Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, said over the weekend that he is seeing data that shows the variant is less serious as well.
‘Thus far – though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it – it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it, but we’ve really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to delta,’ he told CNN.
‘But thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity. But again we’ve got to hold judgement until we get more experienced.’
America’s Covid situation has begun trending in the wrong direction in recent weeks.
The nation is now averaging 110,000 new daily cases per day, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the past two weeks.
Hospitalizations are up nearly 20 percent as well, with nearly 60,000 Americans currently admitted due to Covid complications.
Deaths have increased, though at a slower rate, with the U.S. averaging 1,200 per day, a five percent increase over two weeks.