SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of the omicron variant Wednesday — in a vaccinated traveler who returned to California after a trip to South Africa — as scientists around the world race to establish whether the new, mutant version of the coronavirus is more dangerous than previous ones.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious-disease expert, made the announcement at the White House.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” he said.
The infected person was identified as a traveler who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22, developed mild symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 Monday.
"There is still a lot we don’t know about the omicron variant," said Ted Wynn, director of the Bulloch Public Safety/Emergency Management Agency. "There is no reason to panic but we should remain vigilant. Experts believe it could be two to three weeks before we know how easily omicron can be passed between people."
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco obtained a sample from the infected patient Tuesday evening and worked feverishly overnight to assemble the genetic sequence.
The person, who had had the full two doses of the Moderna vaccine and wasn't yet due for a booster shot, is improving, California officials said.
Fauci and other medical experts strongly emphasized that Americans should continue to get vaccinated and get their booster shots. The vaccine has been proven to reduce the risk of severe illness and death, and Fauci said it is reasonable to believe it will offer protection against the omicron variant.
"What we do know is vaccines and boosters work to mitigate the worst effects of COVID," Wynn said. "Hopefully the existing vaccines will provide protection against omicron as the vaccine makers believe they will. One thing is for sure – a vaccine makes people less vulnerable to severe illness and possible death."
The mild nature of the California case “is a testimony to the importance of the vaccinations,” said California Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.
Health officials say the best way to reduce both catching the virus and getting seriously ill or dying if you do contract COVID, remains vaccination. Statistics show the highest rates of infection and incidences of death still occur in areas with the lowest vaccination rates.
Two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and single-dose Johnson and Johnson are available at doctors’ offices and pharmacies around the Bulloch County area. Boosters for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also are available for those who have received their second shot at least six months ago.
Officials said all the omicron-infected individual’s close contacts have been reached and have tested negative, officials said. The patient, who agreed to remain in quarantine, was identified only as being between 18 and 49.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed confidence in the state's efforts to control the virus and said he does not anticipate it will impose another stay-at-home order or other shutdown measures.
At least 23 other countries have reported omicron infections since South African authorities first identified the variant a week ago — an announcement that led the U.S. and many other countries to almost immediately bar airline travelers arriving from southern Africa.
In South Africa, new cases of COVID-19 nearly doubled in a single day to almost 8,600, authorities reported Wednesday, and the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said omicron has now overtaken the delta variant among genetic samples sequenced.
But the variant is still surrounded by many unknowns, among them: Is it more contagious than other versions, as some scientists are beginning to suspect? Does it make people more seriously ill? And can it evade the vaccine?
“Any declaration of what will or will not happen with this variant, I think it is too early to say," Fauci said.
East Georgia Regional Medical Center continues to report that no patients being treated for the virus needed a ventilator. Wynn reported five COVID patients were hospitalized at East Georgia on Wednesday, but no one was on a ventilator.
Also, Bulloch County suffered its 100th confirmed death due to COVID since the pandemic began. Another 120 deaths in that same time frame are considered probably COVID related, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Three local residents have died since Monday.