Florida has discovered its first known cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
State health officials said the first known case was identified Monday in a COVID-19 patient in St. Lucie County. The Florida Department of Health says it has begun contact tracing efforts to “identify any possible exposures, as well as implement any necessary isolation and quarantine protocols.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed late Tuesday it was the omicron strain. The state has not said if the patient was traveling internationally or had contracted the virus locally.
Another case was identified at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, the hospital announced Tuesday. The patient recently traveled overseas and is experiencing mild symptoms, said a statement from spokesperson Zoë Stagg.
Much is still unknown about the omicron variant. It was first identified in Botswana and South Africa in early November, but by then had already spread around the globe. So far, the variant has been detected in at least 17 states, and that now includes Florida.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, while speaking at a Tuesday news conference in Oldsmar, downplayed the significance of the omicron variant’s arrival in Florida, suggesting it’s already been in the state.
“Once you identify it in a few places around the world, it has spread, OK?” DeSantis said. “Just because you haven’t identified it somewhere doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
He suggested he would counter the variant using the same strategy he employed while the delta strain ravaged the state in the summer: no restrictions or mask requirements.
“In Florida, we won’t let them lock you down. We won’t let them restrict you,” he said. “We’re not going to let them impose mandates. We’re not going to let them close the schools. We are going to protect your freedom to make your decision.”
The one action he suggested he would take as governor to fight the variant was to expand access to treatments such as monoclonal antibodies, which can help fight the virus once it’s contracted: “This is something you have to deal with, and I think we provided good options for people if this is something they have to do, by doing these treatments.”
However, Regeneron announced last week that its COVID-19 antibody treatment may be less effective against the omicron variant. That finding is based on laboratory analyses and computer modeling, and there has been no direct data indicating a loss in effectiveness, according to the company. Regeneron’s chief science officer told the Wall Street Journal that testing of new drugs is currently underway and more data will be available in the coming month.
DeSantis didn’t mention COVID-19 vaccines or their respective boosters, which can prevent infection. That’s in keeping with his approach since the summer when he backed off his support of the vaccine amid rising anti-vaccine sentiment in conservative circles.
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Getting vaccinated remains the best defense against falling ill to COVID-19 and or being hospitalized because of the virus, public health experts say. As of Friday, approximately 60 percent of eligible Floridians were fully vaccinated, including nearly 3 million residents who have received their booster shot.
U.S. health officials now recommend that all adults get their booster six months after the second mRNA vaccine or two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot. Children as young as 5 are also now eligible to get vaccinated.
The CDC also suggests wearing masks in public indoor settings in areas of high transmission, regardless of vaccination status.
“We’ve said it over and over again and it deserves repeating. If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated, get boosted if you are vaccinated, continue to use the mitigation methods, namely masks, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a news conference last week.
Florida operates three laboratories that perform genomic sequencing on COVID-19 samples taken across Florida. Approximately 3.5 percent of positive tests are selected for sequencing in Florida, and about 3.6 percent are sequenced nationally.
The World Health Organization labeled omicron a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26 because of concerns that it is more transmissible than the delta variant and that it could reinfect those recovering from a previous COVID-19 infection. Since it was identified, the omicron variant has spread to at least 38 countries, the World Health Organization reported Friday.
However, the delta variant still is the primary COVID threat in the U.S., accounting for more than 99 percent of cases and driving a surge of hospitalizations in the north. More than 105,000 Americans a day are testing positive, according to the latest 7-day average of cases.
Florida, only now recovering from its delta wave surge, has seen a total of 3.7 million positive cases and 61,701 deaths through the 21-month pandemic, the state reported Friday.
The state reported 10,892 coronavirus cases over the latest seven-day period of data collected from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2, an average of about 1,560 infections per day. That is far below the delta peak, but cases no longer are falling and are rising slightly.
Experts warn that without necessary precautions, Florida may be looking at a repeat of the summer delta surge.
“We don’t have to look that far back in the rearview mirror to see what delta did to us,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “Even in an era of widespread availability of vaccines and masks, that are very effective in preventing illness and death, we had record numbers of both.”
There still is much scientists have to learn about the omicron variant and Florida may benefit because it will spread during a mild winter that won’t push people inside, in close quarters, like last summer’s sweltering heat did, Salemi said.
Early data out of South Africa, where it is already the dominant strain, indicates that while it has produced more infections, hospitalizations have not gone up substantially.
“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Sunday.
But without knowing the vaccination status of each infected individual, it’s difficult to determine the variant’s severity, Salemi said. “This just underlines the general point that if we want to know this information, we need data stratified by vaccination status.”
Scientists have found that the omicron variant displays some concerning new traits.
It is likely more transmissible than the original coronavirus, according to the CDC. But it’s unclear how it compares to the delta variant. That’s an important distinction because more transmissible variants of a virus tend to push out less infectious versions. Data from South Africa and the United Kingdom indicate that the omicron variant could emerge the victor.
If the omicron variant is more transmissible but less virulent, that could actually be a good thing, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center biostatician Elizabeth Halloran told The Atlantic. “If it can get around the vaccines, but in the end really causes less severe disease, that’s probably a step in the right direction.”
The omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in the virus’ exterior spike proteins, which allow the virus to infect healthy human cells. These spike proteins are what allow the immune system’s antibodies to identify and disable the virus. The large number of mutations in the omicron’s spike structure is what makes scientists concerned about the immune system’s ability to fight off the new variant.
South African researchers found an increase in cases among people who already had been infected, according to a recently published paper that has not yet been peer reviewed.
Manufacturers of the three vaccines currently approved in the U.S. — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — all say they’re studying the efficacy of their vaccines against the omicron variant. Pfizer CEO Ugur Sahin said laboratory results measuring the effectiveness of his company’s vaccine against omicron should be available in the coming week. If a new version of the vaccine is required, he has said it could be ready in as little as 100 days.
DeSantis said the coronavirus is something people will have to learn to live with.
“There’s going to be variants,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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