Omicron is probably in the US already

The bearer of grim news.
The bearer of grim news.
Image: Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters
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After two cases of the omicron variant were detected in Canada on Sunday (Nov. 28), the writing is on the wall: omicron has, in all likelihood, already arrived in the US.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, admitted as much on Sunday. “I would not be surprised” if the virus variant is circulating in the US, Fauci said on NBC. “We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve been noted in Israel and Belgium and in other places—when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

Is omicron in the US already?

The inevitability of omicron arriving in the US seems particularly stark because the government has, as yet, not implemented any new screening programs for passengers arriving from southern Africa, where omicron was first identified. Since the variant’s detection, several flights have arrived into the US from Johannesburg, Cape Town, and other cities in the region.

Beginning Monday (Nov. 29), the US will prevent foreign travelers from eight southern African countries from flying to the US. But flights are still operating, and anyone who is a citizen of or resident in the US can still fly home from southern Africa; once in the US, they can move about the country without taking a covid-19 test.

The US should get ready for omicron

Much is still unclear about omicron: the severity of the covid-19 it causes, or its resistance to vaccines. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN that scientists will need two to three weeks to determine how much protection covid-19 vaccines confer against omicron. “There’s good reasons to think it will probably be okay,” Collins said.

Nevertheless, Fauci advocated caution. Vaccination rates in the US are stagnating, roughly 1,400 people a day are still dying of covid-19 in the country, and caseloads are high; on Nov. 24, the last full day for which data was collected before the long Thanksgiving weekend, the US saw nearly 120,000 new cases. “We have about 62 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet gotten vaccinated,” Fauci told CBS, adding that people who received their vaccine doses six to 10 months ago will see a diminution of their immunity.

To combat the danger of a “fifth wave” fueled by omicron, Fauci said, Americans must take their doses of both regular vaccines and boosters. “If we now do what I’m talking about in an intense way, we may be able to blunt” the threat of a new wave of disease, Fauci said. “If we don’t do it successfully, it is certainly conceivable and maybe likely that we will see another bit of a surge. How bad it gets is dependent upon us, and how we mitigate.”