Omicron Cases in the U.S. Likely to Rise, Officials Say

Experts said it is likely that there is already community spread of the variant in the United States.,

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U.S. says Omicron cases are likely to rise.

Amid a rise in the detection of cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the United States, health experts are urging people to get vaccinated and get boosters.Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dec. 5, 2021Updated 4:36 p.m. ET

Several dozen cases of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been identified in the United States, a number that is “likely to rise” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

At least 17 states have detected cases, including in some people who have no known history of recent travel abroad, which experts have said suggests community spread of the variant in the United States.

Genetic sequencing is required to determine which variant an infected patient has. In recent months the United States has greatly expanded sequencing efforts, but the process takes time. The C.D.C., for instance, typically takes about 10 days to yield results. According to Dr. Walensky, about 14 percent of all positive P.C.R. tests in the United States are being sequenced.

The variant has a cluster of mutations that have raised alarm around the world, but at this early stage, there are still more questions about it than answers, health officials said on Sunday.

“What we don’t yet know is how transmissible it will be, how well our vaccines will work, whether it will lead to more severe disease,” Dr. Walensky said.

American officials are in frequent communication with experts in South Africa where the variant is now widespread, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

How quickly Omicron will spread in the United States, where the highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for 99.9 percent of all cases, remains unknown, Dr. Fauci said. “What’s going to happen when you have those two competing with each other?” he said, adding that, “we have really got to be careful” in assessing how severe Omicron might end up being.

A new report from South Africa has fueled hopes that the variant may not cause serious disease, though it remains far too early to conclude that, experts say. The report focuses primarily on 42 patients in a hospital in Gauteng province, the center of the nation’s Omicron outbreak.

Omicron’s rapid spread still poses risks, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for coronavirus response, said on Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“Even if we have a large number of cases that are mild, some of those individuals will need hospitalizations, they will need to go into I.C.U., and some people will die,” she said. “And so more cases can mean more hospitalizations, and more hospitalizations could mean more deaths.”

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know

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The Omicron variant. The latest Covid-19 variant was identified on Nov. 25 by scientists in South Africa and has since been detected in more than 40 countries, including the U.S. New York State identified its first cases on Dec. 2, and at least 16 other states have reported infections. Should you be concerned? Here are answers to common questions about Omicron.

Understanding the mutation. Scientists in South Africa said that the Omicron variant appeared to spread more than twice as quickly as Delta and that past coronavirus infections give little immunity against it. In the U.S., sequencing labs are speeding up the screening of samples from travelers.

Biden’s winter Covid plan. As Omicron reached the U.S., President Biden announced a new pandemic strategy that includes hundreds of family-centered vaccination sites, booster shots for all adults, new testing requirements for international travelers and insurance reimbursement for at-home tests.

Travel restrictions and lockdowns. Germany has announced tough restrictions on unvaccinated people, barring them from many aspects of public life. Japan, Israel and Morocco have stopped all foreign travelers, and Australia delayed reopening its borders. Here’s what to know about travel restrictions.

She also urged governments to take swift action by increasing vaccination and encouraging mask wearing, distancing and ventilation to tamp down the spread of Omicron and Delta.

The Biden administration recently announced plans to expand its booster campaign and increase access to rapid tests. On Monday, the United States will begin requiring all incoming air travelers to show proof of a negative test taken the day before departure, regardless of their vaccination status or citizenship.

On Sunday, officials also defended the government’s ban on travelers from eight countries in southern Africa. The ban has been criticized for being both unhelpful and overly punitive.

“That ban was done at a time when we were really in the dark,” Dr. Fauci said, noting that it was intended to buy officials time to gather more information about Omicron. But now that more information is coming in from around the world, officials are frequently re-evaluating the ban, he said.

“Hopefully, we will be able to lift that ban within a quite reasonable period of time,” he said, adding that “we all feel very badly about the hardship” that it put on southern Africa.

But officials dismissed the possibility of domestic travel restrictions, noting that they would be impractical. “That would be extremely onerous for people who are trying to get around the country for things like holidays,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And I don’t know how much we’d gain by it.”

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