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California Detects First U.S. Omicron Case

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What You Need to Know

  • The individual affected was a traveler who returned to the United States from South Africa Nov. 22.
  • The traveler was vaccinated but had not received a booster.
  • A Cambridge researcher says hospitalizations in a South African region facing an omicron variant outbreak appear to be on track ot double every 6 days.

Public health officials in California today said they have detected the first known case of the COVID-19 omicron variant in the United States — and a former California outbreak fighter has estimated that the United States might also have about 2,000 undetected omicron variant cases.

The South African province of Gauteng has the world’s most closely watched omicron variant outbreak.

There are early signs that the omicron variant outbreak could case a significant number of infections severe enough to require hospitalization. Ridhwaan Suliman, Cambridge University researcher, analyzed tracking data from South Africa and reported in a post on Twitter that the number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions in Gauteng has increased to 136 in the past seven days, up 144% from the total for the previous week.

Those figures mean that, at this point, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Gauteng is doubling every six days, Suliman said.

Public health officials in South Africa first announced the discovery of the Gauteng omicron variant surge Friday. Since then, pandemic trackers around the world have reported finding more than 60 omicron cases in about 60 countries.

At this point, all of the omicron variant cases detected outside of South Africa so far appear to be mild or asymptomatic.

What the News Means

For public health officials, and health insurers trying to protect enrollees, the news means new pressure to try to get people vaccinated against COVID-19, and to help get booster shots for fully vaccinated people.

Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said in a statement that President Joe Biden acknowledged Friday that it was only a matter of time before the first omicron variant case was detected in the United States.

“The president’s medical team continues to believe that existing vaccines will provide some level of protection against severe illness from omicron, and [that] individuals who have gotten boosters have even stronger protection,” Zients said. “As such, we urge all adults to get their booster shots and to get themselves and their kids vaccinated, if they haven’t already.”

For life insurers trying to understand how the outbreak might affect their insureds, the California omicron variant detection announcement means continuing uncertainty.

COVID-19 vaccination rates are much higher in the United States than in Gauteng, and percentage of young people with health problems such as HIV infection is much lower.

But U.S. life insurers were optimistic about the impact of the COVID-19 delta variant as late as August, and the delta variant ended up causing many more deaths among working-age insureds than the insurers had expected.

The Details

The California Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Department of Public Health said in a joint statement that a team at the University of California, San Francisco, detected the omicron variant in a test sample, using genome sequencing tools.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a separate statement that the patient involved was an individual who returned to the United States from South Africa Nov. 22. The traveler was considered fully vaccinated but had not received a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.

The traveler has mild symptoms that are improving and is self-quarantining, CDC officials said.

In South Africa, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases says in an COVID-19 variant tracking report that the omicron variant has been present in 74% of South Africa’s positive November COVID-19 samples sequenced so far, up from none in October.

Hospitals in the Gauteng Province, which is the location of Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capitals, are now caring for 1,035 patients with COVID-19. The province is home to about one-quarter of South Africa’s 60 million residents and 40% of its 2,550 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

The early hospitalization numbers are concerning, because patients with COVID-19 who end up having severe cases often take three weeks to develop symptoms severe enough to warrant hospitalization, Suliman said.

Scientists in South Africa are telling members of the country’s Parliament that the virus is beginning to spread outside Gauteng, and other officials are saying that the number of new daily infections detected throughout the country has doubled, to 8,561, according to the Independent Online.

Implications for the United States

Dr. Charity Dean, the chairman of Public Health Company, who previously was the assistant director for the California Department of Public Health, and a member of the department’s COVID-19 outbreak response team, has estimated that the United States could now have about 2,000 undetected omicron variant cases, based on information about travel patterns and case statistics from other countries.

But “case ascertainment is poor, to due to inadequate levels of testing & sequencing,” Dean said in a tweet.

Pictured: An aerial view of the Embarcadero, in San Francisco. (Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM)


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