Omicron Variant That May Resist Vaccines Found in All U.S. States

Omicron, the newest COVID-19 variant of concern, has been detected in every state in the United States, including in people who were fully vaccinated with a booster shot.

Officials are still researching Omicron to determine its true transmissibility and identify how severe of disease it's prone to cause. So far, cases in the United States have largely been mild but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautioned people against drawing conclusions from early cases because the small number of infections wasn't representative of how the variant could impact those most at risk.

South Dakota became the last state to report an Omicron infection and said it involved a male in his 20s. While just one case had been identified, health officials said it's "safe to assume" there are other cases across the state.

"The best way to protect yourself from severe disease with this variant is to get vaccinated," Joshua Clayton, South Dakota State Epidemiologist, said in a statement. "We urge South Dakotans to monitor for symptoms and get tested as soon as they experience symptoms."

Omicron was first detected in South Africa on November 24 and the World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as a variant of concern days later. Omicron's dozens of mutations are associated with increased transmissibility and the potential to render vaccines and therapeutics less effective.

covid-19 omicron detected united states
The Omicron variant has been detected in all 50 states. Above, people wearing protective face masks walk in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan on November 4, 2021. NOam Galai/Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told the Agence France-Press that Omicron is "clearly highly transmissible" and is likely to be able to spread easier than Delta. However, it doesn't appear to cause as severe a disease as Delta and if researchers find that it tends to cause only mild illness, that would be the "best-case scenario," according to Fauci.

The timing of Omicron could complicate America's response to the pandemic, though. Daniel Havlichek, former chief of the College of Human Medicine's Infectious Diseases Division at Michigan State University, noted to Newsweek that even if it's one-tenth as severe as Delta, but if it's 10 times more infectious, the raw numbers of people getting seriously ill could be similar to what we've seen in the past.

Any increase in hospitalizations would also put added strain on health care systems that are already being pushed to their breaking point from surges in cases and hospitalizations fueled by the Delta variant.

California reported what was believed to be the first case of Omicron in the United States on December 1. The person had recently returned to San Francisco from South Africa on November 22, developed symptoms a few days later and tested positive on November 29.

However, the CDC said on Friday that the first-known case was actually found in a person who traveled internationally and started getting symptoms on November 15, according to CNBC.

Several cases of the Omicron variant have involved vaccinated people and officials are concerned about the variant's impact on the effectiveness of vaccines. Companies have already started working on a variation of the vaccine that would specifically target Omicron, but it likely wouldn't be available until at least March.

Officials don't expect Omicron to render the current vaccines completely useless and are urging people to start their inoculation series if they haven't already and get their booster shot if they're eligible.

Texas became the first state to report a death from the Omicron variant and announced on Monday that a man who was unvaccinated had died. He had previously been infected with the virus, indicating that natural immunity may not be enough to protect against serious disease.

To combat the variant, President Joe Biden announced he would be expanding access to testing and vaccinations. He advised those who are vaccinated and received their booster dose not to panic about the variant, as they'd likely have some protection, but cautioned that those who remain unvaccinated are at risk of getting seriously ill and dying.