SAN FRANCISCO — The first U.S. case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been confirmed in San Francisco, putting California once again at the center of the nation’s pandemic response.
Officials said the infected individual had returned home from South Africa on Nov. 22. A few days after arriving, the person began to feel ill and got tested.
On Monday, the result came back positive, and the specimen was subsequently sequenced, at which point it was determined that the case was indeed the work of the latest named coronavirus strain.
The person was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that did not require hospitalization. Officials said the individual’s condition was improving as of Wednesday.
There are no signs yet of any larger outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area, and officials at both the state and federal levels emphasized that caution, rather than consternation, is called for.
In California, health and political leaders remain confident that the new variant will not require the reimposition of lockdowns or other restrictions. Rather, they said this latest twist in the nearly 2-year-old pandemic reinforces the message they’ve long been trumpeting: the importance of getting more people vaccinated and boosted once they’re eligible.
“There’s more panic than information around this new variant,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a briefing Wednesday. “And that just means we have to keep our mind open, but maintain our vigilance.”
The variant’s presence is not unexpected. First detected last month, the strain has already been found in roughly two dozen countries around the globe.
“We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, said during a briefing Wednesday.
That California is home to the first confirmed case of omicron also should not be cause for alarm, officials said, given the state’s robust testing and genomic surveillance efforts.
“It’s not unexpected that we actually do have a case here in California, and we do expect that, over time, we will have additional cases,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary. “And that’s why we need to keep our guard up.”
Officials said the infected San Francisco resident is self-isolating. Close contacts have been identified and have tested negative so far, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The case was confirmed by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, with genomic sequencing conducted at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The person recently traveled to South Africa and developed symptoms upon their return,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of health. “And they did the right thing and got tested and reported their travel history.”
Colfax said he doesn’t anticipate altering the COVID-19 measures that are already in place in light of the discovery, adding: “This is not where we were 20 months ago. We are in a much better place.”
San Francisco, he noted, has a high vaccination rate, and is confident in existing protocols.
“Our masking and vaccine requirements are among some of the most stringent in the country. These efforts have been very effective in helping us slow the spread of the virus,” Colfax said.
Citing privacy, health officials released few details about the individual. Newsom said the person was between 18 and 49 years old.
“We must remain vigilant against this variant, but it is not a cause for panic,” the California and San Francisco departments of Public Health said in a joint statement. “To help detect and prevent the spread of this new variant, the state of California is increasing COVID-19 testing at our airports for arrivals from countries identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We recognize that everyone is exhausted, and the news of a new variant can be overwhelming,” the statement continued. “It is important that we collectively focus on the things we know prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. Individuals should get vaccinated and boosted; wear your mask in indoor settings; get tested if you have symptoms; and stay home if you are sick.”
Still, the arrival of the highly mutated variant comes at what was already shaping up to be a particularly precarious time in California. Officials have long expressed concern that the one-two punch of the end-of-year holiday season and colder weather will increasingly push people to gather in crowded indoor settings where the risk of coronavirus transmission is especially high.
But whether Omicron ultimately proves to be more of a speed bump or a roadblock on California’s path to pandemic recovery remains to be seen.
Like San Francisco, officials in Los Angeles County and at the state level have also indicated they’re not currently contemplating significant new coronavirus-related restrictions in light of the emergence of the new variant.