Coronavirus: Minnesota confirms first case of omicron variant

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health announced Thursday that a laboratory has confirmed the state’s first case of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

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In a statement, officials identified the man who tested positive for the omicron variant as a Hennepin County resident who was vaccinated. It was not immediately clear if he had gotten a vaccine booster.

The man developed mild symptoms of COVID-19 on Nov. 22 and tested positive for the viral infection two days later. Officials said he had recently traveled to New York City to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention, which was held at the Javits Center from Nov. 19 to 21.

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“This news is concerning, but it is not a surprise,” Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday. “We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world. Minnesotans know what to do to keep each other safe now — get the vaccine, get tested, wear a mask indoors, and get a booster. Together, we can fight this virus and help keep Minnesotans safe.”

The case is at least the second confirmed nationwide after officials announced the first confirmed case of the omicron variant in California on Wednesday.

The World Health Organization named omicron a “variant of concern” last week given its high transmissibility. On Friday, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. is restricting travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in an effort to curb the spread of the variant.

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Omicron was first identified in Botswana on Nov. 11 and has since spread to several countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, U.S. health officials cautioned that much remains unknown about the variant, which has mutations that suggest it could be more transmissible than previous variants or more resistant to the currently available vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, emphasized that with booster shots, vaccines are still expected to be effective against severe COVID-19.

“We’ve said it over and over again ... and it deserves repeating: If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” he said at a White House COVID-19 Response Team news briefing. “Get boosted if you are vaccinated. Continue to use the mitigation methods -- namely masks, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. Choose outdoors rather than indoors. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Test and isolate if appropriate.”

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said officials are continually working to monitor the spread of COVID-19 variants across the country. As of Tuesday, the delta variant accounted for more than 99% of the cases identified in the U.S., she said.

“Evidence has repeatedly shown that prevention strategies work,” she said. “With over 80 percent of our nation’s counties still in substantial or high transmission, CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in these areas, washing your hands frequently, and physical distancing. These methods work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 no matter the genetic sequence.”

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As of Wednesday, the last date for which data was available, about 70% of the U.S. population – 233.5 million people – had gotten at least one dose of any of the available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 59% of Americans, or 197.3 million people, have been fully vaccinated, while about 21% of those who have been fully vaccinated have gotten booster shots, CDC data shows.

Since the start of the pandemic, officials have reported 48.6 million cases of COVID-19 nationwide, resulting in more than 782,000 deaths, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, 263.7 million cases have been reported, resulting in 5.2 million deaths, according to the university.