Omicron cases in US set to increase, officials say

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

At least 17 states have detected cases, including in some people who have no known history of recent overseas travel, which experts said suggests community dissemination of the variant in the USA.

Genetic sequencing is necessary to determine the variant of an infected patient. In recent months, the United States has dramatically increased its sequencing efforts, but the process is taking time. The CDC, for example, typically takes around 10 days to show results. According to Dr. Walensky, about 14% of all positive PCR tests in the United States are sequenced.

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

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

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

How quickly Omicron will spread to the United States, where the highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for 99.9% of all cases, remains unknown, Dr Fauci said. “What’s going to happen when these two compete?” He said, adding that “we really have to be careful” in assessing how bad Omicron could be.

A new report South Africa has fueled hopes that the variant does not cause serious illness, although it is still too early to conclude, experts say. The report focuses primarily on 42 patients at a hospital in Gauteng province, the center of the Omicron outbreak in the country.

The rapid spread of Omicron still poses risks, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, World Health Organization technical officer for coronavirus response, said on CBS ‘”Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“Even though we have a large number of mild cases, some of these people will need to be hospitalized, they will need to go to intensive care and some people will die,” she said. “And so more cases could mean more hospitalizations, and more hospitalizations could mean more deaths.”

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

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

Officials also defended the government’s ban on travelers from eight southern African countries on Sunday. The ban has been criticized for being both unnecessary and too punitive.

“This ban was made at a time when we were really in the dark,” said Dr Fauci, noting that it was to give officials time to gather more information on Omicron. But now that more and more information is coming in from around the world, officials are frequently reassessing the ban, he said.

“I hope we can lift this ban within a very reasonable time,” he said, adding that “we all feel very bad about the difficulties” it places on southern Africa.

But officials have ruled out the possibility of domestic travel restrictions, noting they would be impractical. “It would be extremely onerous for people trying to travel around the country for vacations like vacations,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “And I don’t know how much we would gain from it.”

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