A person in California became the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the COVID-19 omicron variant, U.S. officials said Wednesday 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. Two U.S. officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they could not speak on the record.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking steps 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.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious than previous strains, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.
The announcement of the first U.S. case comes before President Joe Biden plans to outline his strategy on Thursday to combat the virus over the winter. Biden has tried to quell alarm over the omicron variant, saying it was a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic.”
Biden and public health officials have grown more urgent in their pleas for more Americans to get vaccinated _ and for those who have been vaccinated to get booster shots to maximize their protection against the virus.
On Tuesday, Canada tightened its own travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant. Under the new measures, anyone arriving by air from all countries except the United States will have to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.
Canada also restricted travel from three more African countries — Nigeria, Egypt and Malawi — bringing the total to 10.
— with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz