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More Countries Report Cases of New Omicron Variant
Nov. 28, 2021, 10:30 a.m. ET.
The United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and Australia reported their first cases of the new Omicron variant during the weekend, joining a rising list of countries that have confirmed cases among travelers returning from southern Africa, according to NBC News.
The U.S. hasn’t detected the variant yet, but it’s possible that it could already be spreading across the country, Anthony Fauci, MD, manager of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Saturday.
“When you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases…it almost invariably is in the end going to go essentially all over,” he told “Weekend TODAY.”
The World Health association labeled Omicron, known scientifically as B.1.1.529, as a “variant of concern” on Friday, meaning that there could be a higher risk of transmission, severe illness and evasion from vaccines. Omicron has a large number of mutations, which could make it more infectious and less treatable, Fauci said.
“These are all maybes, but the suggestion is enough,” he said. “This is something we’ve got to pay really close attention to and be prepared for something that’s serious. It may not turn out that way, but you really want to be ahead of it.”
On Sunday, Australia and Denmark were the latest countries to confirm Omicron cases. Australian officials said the variant was detected among two travelers who were fully vaccinated and had no symptoms, NBC News reported. In Denmark, the variant was found among two travelers who recently arrived from South Africa.
Dutch health officials said on Sunday that at least 13 cases of the Omicron variant were detected in 61 passengers who had positive COVID-19 tests, according to The New York Times. They were among more than 500 people who arrived on two flights from South Africa to The Netherlands and have been quarantined.
Two cases were identified in the U.K. on Saturday among two people who traveled to southern Africa, NBC News reported. Germany also confirmed two cases on Saturday among travelers who entered the country at the Munich airport. Italy reported that a case had been detected in a passenger who arrived from Mozambique.
In response, the European Union is restricting travel to and from seven countries in southern Africa — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The U.S. and South Korea have announced travel restrictions to those countries, as well as Malawi.
In Israel, which has confirmed one Omicron case and has several suspected cases, officials announced the strictest travel ban so far, barring foreign travelers from all countries for 14 days, The New York Times reported.
Omicron cases have also been reported in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, and South Africa. As of Sunday morning, 125 Omicron cases had been reported to GISAID, a global database for the genomic sequencing of viruses.
Scientists have urged caution, saying that little is known about the variant so far. Some variants of concern, such as the Delta variant, have been more contagious and spread globally, but others have had limited effects. Existing vaccines likely offer some protection, The New York Times reported.
Fauci emphasized on Saturday that people shouldn’t panic but that they should continue to take precautions such as wearing masks, following physical distancing guidelines and avoiding large indoor gatherings.
“It is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and that vaccinated people get boosters,” he told TODAY. “We know now clearly that when you get a booster shot…you dramatically increase the level of protection.”
N.Y. Governor Declares State of Emergency as COVID Cases Increase
Nov. 27, 2021, 11:45 a.m. ET
With COVID-19 cases on the rise and the Omicron variant threatening, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday declared a state of emergency that boosts hospital capacity and addresses staffing shortages. While the variant has not yet been found in New York, she warned in a tweet, “It’s coming.”
Hochul said she wanted to postpone all elective surgeries ahead of a potential winter surge in cases. The new protocols go into effect Dec. 3 and will be reevaluated Jan. 15 when the latest data on COVID cases is available, she said in a news release.
“We continue to see warning signs of spikes this future winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Hochul said in the news release. “In preparation, I am announcing imperative steps today to expand hospital capability and help ensure our hospital systems can tackle any challenges posed by the deadly disease as we head into the winter months.”
The limitations on surgery apply to hospitals with limited capacity, defined as having available staffed bed capacity of 10% or less.
Hochul also plans to make vaccinations sites more numerous and accessible, get shots into more children aged 5-17, provide incentive programs, combat misinformation, set up pop-up campaigns in low-vaccination areas, and implement vaccine requirements for healthcare workers.
During the early days of the pandemic, New York City was a hotspot. Now, with the vaccination program almost a year old, the areas outside the city – especially upstate counties — are the places reporting high positivity rates and low vaccination rates, according to data from the New York Department of Health.
As of Saturday, New York City’s seven-day positivity rate is 1.65% compared to 9.67% in the Buffalo/Western New York region, 8.85% in the Finger Lakes, 7.82% in the North Country/Adirondacks, and 6.96% in the Albany area, DOH data shows. The state’s overall positivity rate of 3.84%.
In New York City, at least one dose of vaccine has been given to 97.1% of adults in Queens, 94% in Manhattan, 86.5% in the Bronx, 84.5% in Staten Island, and 83% in Brooklyn. The rate is under 70% in 18 upstate counties, including 52.9% in Allegheny County and 57.5% in Tioga County. The state’s overall vaccination rate is 90%.
“The virus is still lurking among us,” Ayman El-Mohandes, MD, dean of the CUNY School of Public Health, told The New York Post. “The low vaccination rates and high positivity rate upstate is very concerning.”
WHO Classifies New Omicron Variant as ‘Variant of Concern’
Nov. 26, 2021, 1:45 p.m. ET.
The WHO classified the new variant from South Africa as a “variant of concern,” which means it could be more contagious, cause more severe disease and reduce the efficacy of vaccines and treatments.
The WHO convened an independent group of experts on Friday to assess the new variant based on the rapid increase in COVID-19 infections in South Africa this week. Known scientifically as B.1.1.529, the variant was named Omicron.
“Omicron has some concerning properties. This variant has a large number of mutations, and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, said in a video statement.
“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other [variants of concern],” the WHO said in a statement. “The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”
Scientists in South Africa began tracking the variant this week after a jump in COVID-19 cases and reported the variant to the WHO on Wednesday. The first known confirmed infection was from a sample collected on Nov. 9, the WHO said.
Several labs have found that one widely used test could be a reliable way to detect the new variant. The WHO’s virus evolution advisory group has started “a number of studies” to evaluate Omicron and will announce new findings as needed, Van Kerkhove said Friday.
Based on the evidence so far, the WHO advised countries to enhance their surveillance and genomic sequencing efforts to better understand the variant. The WHO also requested that countries submit genomic sequences to public databases, such as GISAID. On Friday, 66 sequences of the B.1.1.529 variant had been reported to GISAID, including 58 in South Africa, six in Botswana and two in Hong Kong.
The WHO also asked countries to conduct field investigations and lab analyses about the severity of the variant, as well as immune responses, antibody neutralization and effectiveness of public health and social measures.