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Omicron COVID-19 variant detected in 5 states, a day after first case was reported in U.S.

The Omicron variant has now been detected in at least five states, after multiple states announced their first cases of the strain on Thursday night. At least 10 total cases have now been reported in the U.S., as local leaders are warning that the variant is now spreading within some communities. 

New York, California, Hawaii, Minnesota and Colorado have now reported cases.

News of the cases comes just one day after California health authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the country's first case of the variant in a traveler who had returned to San Francisco from South Africa. Authorities in Colorado and Los Angeles have also announced detecting cases of Omicron in travelers returning from Africa.

In attempt to curb the spread of new Omicron cases, President Biden said Thursday he planned to tighten testing rules for international flights as part of a new strategy to curb the virus. All passengers, regardless of vaccination status, will have to take a COVID-19 test within just one day before departure starting on Monday. 

But officials in New York and Hawaii, who also reported Omicron cases on Thursday, say they believe the Omicron is already spreading in their communities.

"This is not just due to people who are traveling to Southern Africa or to other parts of the world where Omicron has already been identified. So that's the most important sort of epidemiological takeaway that we want to convey," Dr. Dave Chokshi, New York City's top health official, told reporters on Thursday. 

What we know about the latest cases

Hawaii announced Thursday that it had identified its first case of the Omicron variant, in a resident experiencing "mild to moderate" symptoms who appears to be the country's first reported case in an unvaccinated adult. The person had previously survived a case of COVID-19 over a year ago, officials said, and had no travel history outside of the island.

New York's Governor Kathy Hochul said Thursday that the state had confirmed five cases of the variant there, just hours after Minnesota health officials announced they had identified their first case in a resident who had traveled to New York City in November for a convention that drew thousands of attendees.

One of the New York's five cases is in a 67-year-old woman with "mild symptoms" who had traveled to South Africa and has received at least one dose of vaccine, New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters on Thursday. She returned to the United States on November 25 and tested positive on November 30. New York officials said they still had limited information about the state's other four cases, disclosing only the regions where they lived in the city.

Authorities in New York do not believe the five new cases identified Thursday are linked to the Anime NYC 2021 convention attended by Minnesota's first known Omicron case. Contact tracing has only recently begun for the 53,000 attendees who may have been exposed to the variant there, after organizers of the convention said they were cooperating with New York's investigation.

"All attendees should receive an email or call from the NYC Test and Trace Corps or their local health departments with further information and recommended next steps. You are strongly advised to get tested," the Anime NYC 2021 organizers said in a Twitter post.

Preparing for more cases

Cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in at least 27 countries, European health officials warned on Thursday. Not all cases in Europe have been linked to recent travel abroad, suggesting community spread of the variant there as well. 

The majority of cases caused by Omicron outside Africa have been mild so far, though health officials have warned that healthy, young, vaccinated travelers are at lower risk of severe disease than the general population. 

Experts have also warned that Omicron's significant number of mutations could erode the protection offered by antibodies, especially those from surviving a previous infection. Preliminary results released as a preprint from South Africa, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, suggest a heightened risk of reinfection from the new variant of concern.

Hochul said New York state was not planning new shutdowns or rules to curb the variant, but was urging residents to get vaccinated, wear masks, and avoid large gatherings.

"The best thing that everyone can do is realize we're not defenseless against this variant at all," Hochul said. 

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