With the new omicron variant prompting some international border closures, travel restrictions and rattling the financial markets, NBC 7 reached out to the county of San Diego on Monday, asking for a response to what may be a new stage in the nearly 21-month-old pandemic.
Sarah Sweeney, a communications officer with the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, said it was still premature for local officials to respond to what may or may not be a new threat, but she did concede the likelihood of its presence within U.S. borders, having somehow hitched a ride from its presumed birthplace of South Africa.
“There’s too much about omicron we don’t know yet, and it’s very likely already somewhere in the nation,” Sweeney said in an email sent to NBC 7 on Monday afternoon. “We’d want to better understand how easily it spreads and whether it’s more dangerous. There’s no clear line yet without a better understanding of what it means epidemiologically.”
In the meantime, the public is being urged to remain vigilant in already well-establised protocols.
“… the recommendations for the public — indoor masking, vaccination and good hygiene — stay the same as they do for delta,” Sweeney said, referring to the most-recent variant that has caused surges worldwide due to it’s higher transmissability.
Sweeney’s statement came the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its approval for COVID booster shots to anybody 18 and over.
“The recent emergence of the omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director said in a statement released to the public.
Walensky said that preliminary data from South Africa suggests that the omicron variant may more contagious than its predecessors, giving urgency to researchers trying to discover whether the vaccine will prove resistant to omicron.
For his part, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said he thinks the newest variant, coupled with an increase in other COVID cases domestically, is not welcome news on Wall Street. In fact, he said, in combination, those factors “pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation,” Powell said in remarks CNBC reported that he plans to deliver to Senate lawmakers on Tuesday.
Powell said renewed concerns about the coronavirus could diminish people’s desires to return to the office, which could then have adverse affects on the labor market and, potentially, increase supply-chain disruptions.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average index rallied on Monday, up more than 236 points in the black at the close, turning around Friday’s skid when the markets were down more than a thousand points at one point.
The global risk of omicron is “very high,” the World Health Organization said Monday, as more countries reported cases of the variant that has led to worldwide concern that there is more pandemic suffering ahead.
Despite the global alarm, there is still little understanding about the variant and how virulent it may be.
The World Health Organization announced last week that omircon has been classified as a “variant of concern.”
WHO Health Emergencies Programme COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said early evidence on omicron shows that the variant has a large number of mutations, some of which have concerning characteristics.
Omicron has also shown to have an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID and recovered could be more subject to catching it again with this variant.
The leading infectious disease expert for the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, added that public health experts are trying to find answers to questions such as whether the omicron variant causes more severe illness and whether it can evade protection from vaccines or treatments.
“It also has a bunch of mutations that would suggest it could evade the protection, for example, of monoclonal antibodies and perhaps even convalescent plasma for people who have been infected and recovered, and possibly vaccine. These are all maybes, but the suggestion is enough,” Fauci said.
The quick spread of the variant is also concerning, Fauci said.
“It seems to have really spread rather rapidly in South Africa, even though the numbers are relatively small, its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection and even people who have been vaccinated make us say, ‘This is something you’ve got to pay really close attention to, and be prepared for something that’s serious,'” Fauci explained. “It may not turn out that way, but you really want to be ahead of it, and that’s the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Symptoms connected to the new variant have been described as “extremely mild” by the doctor who first raised concerns over the new strain. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told the BBC Sunday that she started to see patients earlier this month presenting with "unusual symptoms" that differed slightly from those associated with the delta variant, which is the most virulent strain of the virus to date and globally dominant.
“It actually started with a male patient who’s around the age of 33 … and he said to me that he’s just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he’s got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache,” she told the BBC.
The patient didn’t have a sore throat, she said, but more of a “scratchy throat” but no cough or loss of taste or smell — symptoms that have been associated with previous strains of the coronavirus.
Coetzee said she tested the male patient for COVID, and he was positive, as was his family, and then said she saw more patients that day presenting with the same kinds of symptoms that differed from the delta variant.
Other patients she had seen so far with the omicron variant had also experienced what she described as “extremely mild” symptoms, and she added that her colleagues had noted similar cases.
“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa — and remember I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing — is extremely mild, for us [these are] mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone, I’ve spoken to other colleagues of mine and they give the same picture.”
The extent of the actual spread of the omicron variant around the world, however, still remains unclear as countries discover new cases each day.
Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence.
Canada’s health minister says the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
The U.S. has yet to identify any cases but Fauci and other experts have warned that it could already have made it to America.
“I would not be surprised if it is. We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said.
Speaking on Monday at the White House, Pres. Joe Biden said that sooner or later, “we are going to see cases of the omicron variant here in the U.S.” He called it a cause for concern, “not panic.”