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COVID: Highly Contagious Omicron Variant Prompts New Travel Restrictions

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- New travel restrictions will go into effect on Monday as a new coronavirus variant is circulating. The Omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa, but now it's believed to have reached Europe and Hong Kong.

The new restrictions apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. It does not apply to U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

No cases have yet been reported in California, but health officials are calling this new variant a concern for the world. It's another reason to appreciate the relatively high vaccination rate here in the Bay Area.

"Number one, it doesn't look like it evades vaccines," says UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Monica Gandhi. "That's really important. Number two, it's likely more transmissible. But they're still figuring that out."

While there is still much not known about Omicron, it is yet another variant with multiple mutations and it does appear to be more contagious. So it is, in some ways, a bit like another version of Delta.

"Before Delta, we didn't think we were going to need 75% to 80% of an area vaccinated before you're safe," Gandhi says.

Susan Wacek says Omicron was in the back of her mind as she got her booster in Pleasanton on Friday.

"Moderna, half dose," Wacek said. "Feel pretty good about it. So far I'm ok."

The Bay Area has largely surpassed that 80% vaccination goal, which has helped keep hospitalization numbers down here, even as they surge in other parts of the country.

"Very glad to be boosted," Clover Catskill said in Richmond this week. "I'm hoping this doesn't continue on forever. But I realize it might."

Omicron is another reminder that much of the world, and even the United States, is less vaccinated than the Bay Area - and less protected.

"Where variants will arise is in places with low rates of vaccination," Gandhi says. "If this shows us anything, it is to get the world vaccinated so this ends for all of us."

Moderna and Pfizer both say they will update their vaccines to adapt for Omicron. That process will take as long as six weeks.

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