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The U.S. is one of 2 dozen nations that have confirmed cases of the omicron variant

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. is now one of two dozen countries that have confirmed cases of the omicron variant. The case was discovered in San Francisco, and experts had said it was only a matter of time before the variant was found here. NPR's Pien Huang is here to tell us more. So what do we know about this first omicron case in the U.S.?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, as you mentioned, it was found in a San Francisco resident who had gone on a trip to South Africa and returned November 22. They felt sick around Thanksgiving, got tested on the 28, and then a lab in California and the CDC confirmed that this person's COVID case was caused by omicron. California Governor Gavin Newsom offered a few details about the infected person.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: Fully vaccinated, not boosted - this individual has not been hospitalized. The individuals that this individual has come into contact with have not tested positive yet to our knowledge.

HUANG: So this person had gotten two doses of the Moderna vaccine and wasn't eligible for a booster since it hadn't been six months. Now, even if this person doesn't spread the virus to others, omicron has now been found in some two dozen countries, so health officials say with global travel and the way the virus spreads, they do expect more cases to be found in the U.S.

MARTINEZ: Now, remind us what's so concerning about this variant.

HUANG: Well, it has a lot of mutations, and researchers looking at the virus's genetic code wonder if it might be more contagious or cause more severe disease. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser, says it's going to take some time to figure out if these concerns are warranted

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ANTHONY FAUCI: In a matter of two weeks or 2 1/2, three weeks, we'll know a lot about transmissibility, about whether or not it essentially eludes some of the protection from things like monoclonal antibodies.

HUANG: Monoclonals are one of the treatments that we currently have. Another big question is whether the vaccines we have still work well against the variant. And none of this is for sure yet. A lot of these answers will come from watching countries like South Africa, where omicron now seems to be dominant and cases are surging. Ali Mokdad, who tracks COVID at the University of Washington, says the U.S. may not be far behind.

ALI MOKDAD: Our expectation is it will take six to eight weeks to spread all over the United States. And if it is able to compete with delta, it will be definitely the main one circulating in the U.S. six to eight weeks.

MARTINEZ: All right. Six to eight weeks - that sounds pretty quick. So if omicron does turn out to be more transmissible, I mean, are we doing enough to stop the spread?

HUANG: Well, the focus on this one U.S. case might remind people of the beginning of the pandemic, when one case turned to many, and hospitalizations and deaths soon followed. But Dr. Ali Khan, an epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska, says we're now in a much different place.

ALI KHAN: We now have vaccines available to us. We have testing available to us, and we have therapeutics available to us. And we know how to manage this disease with good old public health measures.

HUANG: And yesterday, President Biden said it's a time to be concerned, but not to panic. Shutdowns and lockdowns are not coming back. So Khan says vaccines and booster shots, distancing, quarantining - all of these tools work to stop the spread, and it's time to double down on everyone actually using them.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you very much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.