California detected the first U.S. case of COVID-19 involving omicron on Wednesday as the Biden administration said it would respond to the alarming virus variant by requiring travelers to present negative test results of infection within 24 hours of departing for America.
President Biden will detail new travel rules Thursday as part of a wider strategy to avoid a winter catastrophe and stiff-arm the latest variant of concern.
Officials in California and San Francisco said genomic sequencing detected omicron in a person who returned on Nov. 22 from South Africa, considered the epicenter of the variant, and produced a positive test result on Monday.
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The person, who was fully inoculated with the Moderna vaccine but had not received a booster shot, had mild symptoms of COVID-19 and was improving in self-quarantine. All close contacts tested negative.
“We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron was detected in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House press briefing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said one key plank of Mr. Biden’s forthcoming plan is to require all air travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to be tested within 24 hours of departure for the U.S.
“CDC is working to modify the current global testing order for travel as we learn more about the omicron variant. A revised order would shorten the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States,” CDC spokeswoman Jade Fulce said.
Right now, vaccinated travelers can get a test within a 72-hour window. It is unclear whether the government will accept rapid tests instead of PCR tests, which are more sensitive but often require a longer window to produce results.
The administration is also considering whether to mandate another test within three to five days after arrival and whether U.S. and foreign travelers should self-quarantine for seven days regardless of test results or face fines, according to The Washington Post.
The move follows Mr. Biden’s ban on all travelers from South Africa and surrounding countries. South African authorities sounded the alarm about the omicron variant after a surprising uptick in COVID-19 cases in Johannesburg last week.
South Africa reported over 8,600 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, nearly twice as many as Tuesday. The vast majority of sequenced samples involved the omicron variant, meaning it was outpacing delta.
Omicron has been discovered in about 20 countries and may have been circulating longer than initially thought. Nigeria on Wednesday said it found samples with the variant from October.
The variant was discovered in California after the coronavirus underwent a series of alarming mutations.
Drugmakers are trying to determine whether the omicron variant can puncture vaccines, and the CEO of Moderna expects a “material drop” in efficacy.
The White House told people to stay calm.
“The president’s medical team continues to believe that existing vaccines will provide some level of protection against severe illness from omicron, and individuals who have gotten boosters have even stronger protection. As such, we urge all adults to get their booster shots and to get themselves and their kids vaccinated, if they haven’t already,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients. “The president will have more to say about our strategy for fighting COVID this winter tomorrow, but for now, we know that: This new variant is cause for continued vigilance, not panic. We know what it takes to limit the spread of COVID: Get vaccinated, get boosted, and take public health measures like masking and distancing.”
Mr. Biden said his plan would not involve economic lockdowns. Dr. Fauci, fielding questions in the White House press room, did not endorse calls for a vaccine or testing requirement on domestic flights.
Instead, he said, it is essential for the millions of people who haven’t been vaccinated to come forward and for those who are fully vaccinated to get a booster shot after six months.
The White House is leaning hard to get Americans vaccinated. Mr. Biden, pressured to fulfill a 2020 campaign promise to wrangle the pandemic, said unvaccinated people are the main impediments to success over COVID-19.
“We need the American people to do more,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he does not think vaccinated people should rearrange their lives because of omicron.
“I’m not changing anything. It’s a foregone conclusion that this is here,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “That doesn’t mean it’s spreading at any appreciable level. And I’m not convinced yet that this new variant is more contagious, more virulent and is spreading more aggressively than delta, or that it’s going to outcompete delta.”
Dr. Gottlieb said he does have concerns about people who travel abroad for the holidays, though not because they might come into contact with the omicron variant.
“My concern would be getting stuck outside the country,” he said. “Either you get COVID while you’re traveling, unfortunately even a mild case or an asymptomatic case, and you can’t get back inside the U.S. or get stuck in some kind of quarantine situation. So I’d be very mindful that if you’re going to leave the country, have a plan B, be prepared to stay there or get in touch with medical personnel if you do get stuck.”
Dr. Fauci said he understands that people are worried about the new variant on the cusp of holiday gatherings. He said smaller gatherings of fully vaccinated people should be safe but mixed public settings are more difficult to gauge. He recommended wearing masks where possible as the world tries to control the spread of COVID-19.
“This will end. I promise you that,” Dr. Fauci said. “This will end.”
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