Dec. 2—A laboratory test confirmed the first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Health announced the finding Thursday. It stems from a Nov. 24 test sought by a Hennepin County resident who'd recently returned from a trip to New York.
The resident is an adult male who developed mild symptoms Nov. 22. The person is vaccinated and no longer has symptoms.
Case investigators spoke with the man and found out he recently attended an anime convention in New York City between Nov. 19-21.
The news of the variant being detected in the state is concerning but not surprising, said Gov. Tim Walz in a statement.
"We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world," he stated. "Minnesotans know what to do to keep each other safe now — get the vaccine, get tested, wear a mask indoors, and get a booster. Together, we can fight this virus and help keep Minnesotans safe."
Minnesota's genome sequencing and strong testing network allowed the state to quickly detect the case, he added.
Although omicron is classified as a new variant of concern, it's still unclear how it compares to the highly contagious delta variant.
Minnesota remains "firmly in the grip of the delta wave," said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Wednesday, referring to the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 that's driven the fall surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
With studies into the new variant ongoing, Malcolm stated Thursday the most important thing Minnesotans can do now is make it as hard as possible for the virus to spread.
"In addition to vaccination and boosters, we can slow the spread of this variant and all COVID-19 variants by using the tried-and-true prevention methods of wearing masks, staying home when sick, and getting tested when appropriate," she stated.
A Mayo Clinic expert on Thursday told reporters omicron is likely spreading elsewhere in the state but not yet widespread. The next two to four weeks will tell whether omicron becomes the predominant strain over delta, said Matthew Binnicker, vice chair of practice at Mayo Clinic's department of laboratory medicine and pathology.
"If in a month we're seeing the majority of cases sequenced being omicron, that'll tell us," he said.
Early indications show omicron is highly transmissible. A sharp rise in cases in South Africa, where the virus was first identified, set off red flags, Binnicker said.
So far, omicron is causing mild symptoms. No deaths are associated with the variant as of yet.
Binnicker also went over how variants occur during his briefing with reporters. Viruses replicate their genome when they infect someone, which usually has no downstream consequences in most cases.
Other times, however, the virus mutates into a more transmissible variant, a more immune-resistant variant or a variant causing more severe disease. Delta proved more transmissible, about as severe, and vaccines still maintained high levels of efficacy against it compared to previous predominant variants.
Between the early indications about omicron and the remaining unknowns, health officials keep reiterating the need for mitigation strategies. Binnicker emphasized vaccines and boosters and masking specifically as being important during months when COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses are circulating at high levels.
Not doing anything only gives omicron more room to spread, but also gives viruses better chances to mutate into more spreadable, deadly and vaccine-resistant variants.
"We have to break the cycle of infections," Binnicker said. "And vaccination is the best way of breaking the cycle of someone being infected."
He cited data showing vaccinated people are 75%-85% less likely to become infected. Hospitalization and death rates vary even more widely between vaccinated and unvaccinated residents, with unvaccinated residents at much higher risk for severe cases.
At some point we'll be able to live safely with COVID-19 without overwhelming health care systems, Binnicker said. We're just not there yet.
"We just don't know who's going to have a poor outcome from this," he said.
Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola