The second and third cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in the U.S., one detected in a Minnesota man who had traveled to New York City for a convention, and the other involving a Colorado woman who had been vacationing in southern Africa.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is now examining three Omicron cases spanning at least four states, working to identify Americans who may have been exposed to the travelers.
Minnesota health officials said earlier Thursday that a traveler returning from the NYC Anime convention, an event that attracted over 50,000, was diagnosed with the Omicron variant. And California officials said Wednesday they had had identified the first U.S. case in the San Francisco area, involving a traveller who had also recently returned from Southern Africa.
Colorado health officials said that they identified the possible case because of the woman's recent travel history and sent a team to collect a sample from the woman for sequencing to identify the variant causing her infection.
Earlier this week, the CDC ordered airlines to hand over contact information for passengers arriving on recent flights from several countries in Southern Africa, where the variant was first detected.
Like other U.S. cases of the Omicron variant seen so far, Colorado health authorities said in a release that the woman in their state was experiencing only "minor symptoms" and was isolated at home.
All three of the first U.S. cases had been fully vaccinated. The case in Colorado was eligible for a booster shot, but had not yet received one, the state said. The Minnesota man had received a booster shot. The California case had been vaccinated too recently to get a booster shot.
Community spread in U.S.
While the cases in Colorado and California appear to have been exposed to the variant abroad, health officials in New York say the case spotted in Minnesota suggests "ongoing community spread" of Omicron in New York City.
The Minnesota man developed "mild symptoms" on November 22, after traveling to the Anime NYC 2021 convention in the city, which hosted 53,000 attendees from November 18 through 20.
Convention organizers had apologized to attendees following the event earlier this month, after a massive influx of attendees led to long lines throughout New York's Javits Center. Tony Sclafani, a spokesperson for the venue, said all visitors were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks indoors.
"[W]ith this year's growth also comes our biggest challenge. How to be a home for 53,000 fans. In 2019, we welcomed 46,000. This year saw only 7,000 more. But something was different. Everything was packed much, much more," convention founder Peter Tarara said in a statement before news of the Omicron case.
Health officials said a close contact of his in Minnesota had also since tested positive and is isolating, but they had been unable so far to confirm whether Omicron was causing the second infection because the person had only used an at-home rapid test.
Following his flight back to Minnesota from New York City, the man sought a COVID-19 test on November 24 after noticing mild symptoms of COVID-19 that have since resolved.
Officials praised the man for volunteering information about his trip, and testing for COVID-19 and isolating after he noticed symptoms.
"This individual has been extremely cooperative and has isolated and done all of those things that we would ask someone to do from a public health mitigation standpoint," Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota's state epidemiologist, said.
Officials preparing for more cases
The discovery of the cases come as the Biden administration is racing to ramp up surveillance and new measures to slow the spread of new cases caused by the variant.
In an alert posted on Wednesday night, the CDC urged health providers to collect travel history from new cases and send the agency samples "as quickly as possible" of suspected cases, as federal health officials try to assess the spread of new cases caused by the variant of concern.
The FDA also said Thursday that it is working on expanding a list of test manufacturers that can detect the so-called "S Gene Target Failure" seen in some cases caused by the Omicron and Alpha variants, which could enable more labs to speed up their screening for potential cases. Officials in Minnesota used this approach to prioritize sequencing of recent positive tests in the state, which led to the discovery of its first case.
"While no authorized tests specifically report the presence of particular variants, there are certain detection patterns in some tests with multiple genetic targets that may help with early identification of new variants," James McKinney, an FDA spokesperson, said in a statement.
More than two dozen other countries and territories have so far spotted a case of Omicron, most with a history of international travel, but there have also been some other cases of community spread in Europe.
Virtually all cases seen outside Africa so far have been mild or asymptomatic, although health officials have cautioned that young vaccinated travelers tend to be at lower risk of severe cases of the disease than the general population.
The variant's large number of mutations has raised concerns that people who only have immunity from surviving a prior infection from an earlier strain could be vulnerable to catching the virus again. An early study out of South Africa — which has not been peer-reviewed — warned Thursday of an increased risk of reinfections.
"Get vaccinated, get boosted, and get ready. We do anticipate there will be more cases. But to the extent that they are mild, we'll address them. This is not cause for alarm," New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters on Thursday.
Hochul said there are no confirmed cases yet in the state of New York, but said that "it is very likely soon that someone is going to test positive for this." The governor urged residents not to panic, citing protection from vaccinations and new medicines to treat the disease.
"I want New Yorkers to have the confidence to know that we are ready to deal with this," said Hochul.
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