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1st case of the omicron variant in the U.S. has been reported in California

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Omicron is here. The first case of the variant has been identified in the United States. The case occurred in a traveler who recently returned to California from a trip to South Africa. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us with details. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: We've been waiting. They told us this was coming.

STEIN: Yep.

KELLY: What else do we know about this case?

STEIN: You know, we don't know a lot, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health discovered that a recent case of COVID-19 was caused by the omicron variant. As you said, the case occurred in someone who returned home to San Francisco from South Africa on November 22. This person tested positive a week later, and a genetic analysis conducted at the University of California, San Francisco determined that the person - the virus this person was carrying was the omicron variant. That was then confirmed by the CDC.

KELLY: Do we know how sick this person is? Do we know if they may have spread the omicron variant to anybody else?

STEIN: According to the CDC, this traveler had mild symptoms but is now improving. That's consistent with the earlier reports from South Africa that the omicron cases there seem to be mild, but it's far too soon to make any conclusions about the severity of disease that this variant causes. Officials say the infected person is now self-quarantining, and everyone who had close contact with this person has been contacted, and they have all tested negative so far. So, so far, no signs that it's spread, which is obviously good news. You know, one of the big concerns about this variant is that it may be very contagious. If so, the fear is that it could take over from the delta variant and potentially either accelerate the surge that's already underway or even spark a new one. But this wouldn't happen overnight. Remember; it took months for the delta variant to take over this country and trigger a new surge. But officials will now be monitoring this variant very closely to see what it does here.

KELLY: Sure. Rob, do we know if this person was vaccinated?

STEIN: Yeah, that's a good question. Yes, this person was vaccinated, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who answered questions about the case at a White House briefing. But Fauci says this person did not receive a booster. And neither the CDC nor Dr. Fauci said which vaccine this person had received.

KELLY: I was going to ask that next.

STEIN: Yeah.

KELLY: Do we know how concerned they are - Dr. Fauci, other public health experts? I mean, it's one case, but it's here.

STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, given that the omicron variant had already been spotted in more than 20 countries around the world, public health experts had assumed that it was probably already here. So this, you know, hardly comes as a surprise. Here's what Dr. Fauci said at today's briefing.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: This is the first confirmed case of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant, detected in the United States. And as all of you know, because we've been discussing this, we knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States.

STEIN: So this certainly isn't a cause for panic, but it obviously brings home the fact that the omicron variant is something that the U.S. now has to deal with.

KELLY: And what happens now? We watch, we wait to see what - if more appears?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, at the moment, there are still more questions than really good answers about the omicron variant. It's got way more mutations than any of the previous variants. And the big fear is that those mutations could make it more contagious and could enable it to get around the protection from the vaccines and from previous infections. So scientists are racing to try to figure out just how much of a threat it poses. But it could be a couple of weeks before we start to get the first clues. But the vaccines probably still do provide, you know, protection. So public health officials are urging all those unvaccinated people to finally get vaccinated and all those vaccinated people to get boosters. Here's Dr. Fauci again.

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FAUCI: We have to be prepared that there's going to be a diminution in protection, which is the reason why I keep getting back over and over again and say why it's so important to get boosted. But I think any declaration of what will or will not happen with this variant - it is too early to say.

STEIN: But, you know, all the things we've been doing for so long now can still protect us. You know, wear those masks, get vaccinated and stay away from crowded, poorly ventilated indoor places.

KELLY: NPR's Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.