A person in California became the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the omicron variant of COVID-19, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Wednesday. It comes as scientists continue to study the risks posed by the new strain of the virus.
The Biden administration moved late last month to restrict travel from Southern Africa where the variant was first identified and had been widespread. Clusters of cases have also been identified in about two dozen other nations. The official could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was moving to tighten U.S. testing rules for travelers from overseas, including requiring a test for all travelers within a day of boarding a flight to the U.S. regardless of vaccination status. It was also considering mandating post-arrival testing.
Officials said those measures would only "buy time" for the country to learn more about the new variant and to take appropriate precautions, but that given its transmissibility its arrival in the U.S. was inevitable.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 3,039 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, surpassing 3,000 new cases for the first time since October 21.
The surge in new cases still doesn't represent cases related to Thanksgiving gatherings among unvaccinated family members, which won't appear for at least another week or two.
The percentage of positive tests dropped to 7.3%, still much higher than the state's goal of 5%, indicating community spread is rampant.
Additionally, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 increased for the second day.
WEDNESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Starting today, anyone who would like to get a COVID-19 test at a Wake County Heath and Human Services testing site must make an appointment first.
According to the department's website, the change in policy is to ensure tests go to high risk individuals, those who have been exposed, and those who are having COVID-19 symptoms.
If you're going out of town or have to get a test for your school or job, you will still be given priority for testing.
The change only affects test sites run by Wake County Health Department--many other sites offer walk-up testing.
A federal judge is now blocking President Joe Biden's vaccine requirement for federal contractors in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.
It's the third time in the past few weeks that the mandate was stopped.
The judge said in his 29-page opinion that the vaccine mandate went above Biden's authority under federal law.
A Wake County spokesperson said they have seen a recent increase in people signing up for COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters; it comes as concerns over a new variant strain linger and statewide metrics worsen.
The omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa, has now been confirmed in more than a dozen countries, ranging from Canada to Australia.
"I heard about it, and I think it's really bad. I'm scared because it's really too many people have died (from COVID), and in my family too. Some people in my family have died," said Salvardor Gonzalez Martinez, who said the presence of variant was one of the reasons why he got his booster shoot.
"I can't say that's why I came out. I would have came anyway. But I think even what they don't know about it, we know we do better when we have these boosters. So I'm hoping it will be helpful for the omicron as well," added Sue Falge, a retired nurse.
Researchers are continuing to look into whether omicron is more transmissible or causes a severe reaction, and what level of protection available vaccines provide against it.
"My wife played a role in me getting the booster shot," said Adrain Poole. "Because she said 'you better get that shot!' But (omicron didn't play a role), but then once I heard about it, it gave me more incentive to go ahead and get the booster shot."
Statewide, there were 1,755 new cases reported Tuesday, a 36% increase since last week. The case positivity rate was 9.4%, the highest mark since late-September, with hospitalizations increasing for the fourth straight day.
"We've never seen death like this. So, the booster shot and the shots are needed. It saves lives," said Poole.
It takes two weeks after a person receives their booster shot to gain full protection.
Reporting by ABC11's Michael Perchick
In a news conference, Gov. Roy Cooper and DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen urged North Carolinians to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
"We still know this to be 100% true: getting more people vaccinated is the way out of this pandemic," Cooper said.
Cooper said he was pleased that Thanksgiving this year felt much more normal than the past year, but emphasized that we're still not out of the woods.
Cohen and Cooper both discussed the new omicron variant, Cohen clarifying that the WHO designated it a variant of concern.
"All viruses change over time and COVID-19 is no exception," Cohen said. "There's no need for alarm, but we do need to monitor the science and data."
Going through the state's metrics, she emphasized most are leveling, though the potential for an uptick in the winter months isn't out of question. Plus, she added, it will be several weeks before analysts know whether Thanksgiving gatherings among the unvaccinated caused any outbreaks.
Cohen again emphasized that no cases of omicron have been identified in North Carolina or the U.S. yet, but said it is likely that the variant is already here.
"The time to act is now for vaccination," Cohen said.
North Carolina's Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy K. Cohen will announce she is stepping down from her position after nearly five years on the job, ABC11 has learned.
Cohen, first appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, has been instrumental in the state government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has often been the public face and spokeswoman for everything from vaccinations to mask requirements in schools.
TUESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Gov. Roy Cooper will host a news conference Tuesday afternoon to provide an update on the state's COVID-19 response. The update comes as cases and the percentage of positive tests rise after a prolonged period of improving metrics, hinting at the possibility of another winter surge.
Cooper's news conference comes as the nation stands on edge due news about the omicron variant abroad. While experts say it is likely that the variant is already in the U.S. or will be soon, no cases have been identified at this time. It is unclear at this time whether the omicron variant causes more severe disease, is more contagious than other variants or renders current vaccines less effective.
Cooper will discuss how North Carolina will prepare for any cases of omicron variant, however, experts say the best way to prepare is to get a vaccine or booster shot.