WHO Names Omicron Variant of Concern, First Cases Detected in California

Last Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified a new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, or Omicron, as a “variant of concern” following reports of cases to the WHO by South Africa. Researchers continue to study the virus mutations, its impacts on transmissibility and disease severity, and effectiveness of prior infection, vaccines, and current tests and treatments.

Following the identification of the new variant, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. issued a proclamation suspending and restricting entry of immigrants and noncitizens from a series of countries in Southern Africa. The proclamation took effect on Monday and remains in effect until terminated by the President.

Despite these restrictions, the first case of the Omicron variant detected in the U.S. occurred on Wednesday in San Francisco. According to the CDC, the individual was a traveler who returned from South Africa the week prior and had begun experiencing mild symptoms. Laboratory partners at the University of California, San Francisco worked closely with officials in identifying the new variant case.

A joint statement from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) urged Californians to remain vigilant against the variant, but not to panic. CDPH is increasing COVID-19 testing at airports for arrivals from countries identified by the CDC, and health officials continue to encourage residents to receive a vaccine, wear masks in indoor settings, get tested, and stay home if sick.

As studies continue into the new variant, additional information is anticipated over the coming weeks.