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'It is not a cause for panic' | 1st case of omicron variant identified in California

The news comes as scientists continue to study the risks posed by the new strain of the virus.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A person in California has become the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said that a fully vaccinated San Francisco resident between the ages of 18 - 40 contracted the omicron variant after returning from South Africa. Newsom said he could not give out any more specific information about the person because of privacy laws.

"We are not surprised by this, this was predictable. This was predicted," Newsom said at a press conference Wednesday.

Newsom said 92.1% of Californians 18 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. About 5.8 million doses of the booster shot have been administered as of Dec. 1. Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said the person with the omicron variant has mild symptoms and is improving.

"I think [their improvement] is a testimony to the importance of the vaccinations," Ghaly said.

Ghaly said there is more research that needs to be done on the omicron variant, including whether it is more virulent and whether it affects kids more than earlier strains. At the press conference, Ghaly said people who are eligible, should get vaccines and booster shots now.

"There's a lot of talk about a variant specific boost, that is being prepared. Thank God, we have the ability with our pharmaceutical partners to develop, rapidly, additional therapeutics and vaccines," Ghaly said. "But we ask Californian's who are eligible to get vaccinated and boosted to do that immediately."

Newsom also discussed the timeline of the person returning from South Africa.

The person arrived back in the U.S. on Nov. 22 and developed mild symptoms on Nov. 25. The person was tested on Nov. 28 and the test came back positive on Nov. 29. 24 hours later it was sequenced at the University of California, San Francisco where it was determined that it was the omicron variant.

Newsom said this time last year, California had a surge in COVID-19 cases and in the next few days, there should be more information about the potential spread and impacts of Thanksgiving.

"We are mindful of the experience we had last winter [and] mindful of the challenges that we confronted," Newsom said.

"Not a cause for panic"

The news comes as scientists continue to study the risks posed by the new strain of the virus. In a joint statement from the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health, partners from the University of California, San Francisco identified the case. 

"California is continuing to monitor the variant’s presence and progress through the state’s robust Whole Genome Sequencing surveillance," the statement reads. "We must remain vigilant against this variant, but it is not a cause for panic."

In an effort to better detect and prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 variant, California will increase testing at airports for "arrivals from countries identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

The Biden administration moved late last month to restrict travel from Southern Africa where the variant was first identified and had been widespread. Clusters of cases have also been identified in about two dozen other nations.

For Dr. Brad Pollock Associate, dean for Public Health Sciences at UC Davis, the news about the first omicron variant being detected in California was inevitable. 

"We don’t know yet how fast it’s going to spread we have some clues that it is as transmissible as the delta variant was it may a little bit more so ," Pollock said. 

Dr. Pollock said we also don’t know what level of impact the omicron variant will have in terms of the vaccine and effectiveness, but it will be determined by whether there's an increase in the number of people that are being hospitalized, and possibly even dying. 

"Both Pfizer and Moderna now are working on formulations of a booster dose that would actually be programmed for this specific variant as well as the delta variant," Dr. Pollock said.

"The only question is how rapidly they're going to develop and how dangerous they're going to be"

Across California, labs like the one at the UC Davis Genome Center have been sequencing variants, and experts say quickly identifying the omicron variant in the state is a good thing as the science community works to learn more about the new variant.

"It's a good test of our surveillance infrastructure," said Dr. David Coil with the UC Davis Genome Center.

The emergence of the omicron variant is not a surprise for infectious disease expert, Dr. Dean Blumberg with UC Davis Medical Center.

"As the virus multiplies, it commonly mutates. So there's going to be new strains developing all the time, the only question is how rapidly they're going to develop and how dangerous they're going to be," Dr. Blumberg said.

Those questions remain unanswered but so far the markings of omicron are concerning.

"It's too early to know if we should freak out or not, but it's worth using caution," Dr. Coil said.

Health experts say the person's mild symptoms is a testament that vaccines are effective. For now, it's a rush for the science community to figure out how transmissible and virulent the omicron variant is and how it matches up to current vaccines.

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Dr. Mark Ghaly comments on 1st case of omicron variant identified in California | Raw