LANSING — Michigan has recorded its first confirmed case of the emerging Omicron COVID-19 variant as it continues to battle rising cases of the dangerous Delta variant.
The news comes as the country is coming to grips with yet another variant of the virus, with first cases reported in California, New York and Colorado in the last week or so. Twenty states have reported the variant in recent days.
State health officials reported on Thursday that the first confirmed case of the Omicron was detected in Kent County, which is in the western Michigan and includes the populous city of Grand Rapids.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Kent County Health Department said they were notified of a case of the Omicron variant in an adult Kent County resident.
Vaccine records indicated the individual was fully vaccinated, but had not received a booster dose.
State and county officials say they were assessing potential for out-of-state exposure and were complying with isolation guidance and reaching out to close contacts.
Last week, California and New York officials said they had detected the variant in people who had a history of travel. Though the first Colorado case was associated with travel to southern Africa, New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said Omicron was definitely being spread in the community and not just detected in people who had traveled abroad.
As of Thursday, New York state had confirmed 20 cases of the Omicron variant, 13 of which were found in New York City.
Omicron was first identified in southern Africa in late November and has since been found in more than 20 U.S. states and 57 countries across the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Pfizer released an initial lab study that found two doses of the vaccine showed a reduction in the ability of antibodies to target and neutralize the omicron variant. But the study also found a third “booster” shot increases antibody protection 25-fold.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects that anyone with the Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death and are expected to do the same against Omicron. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of primary vaccinations and boosters.
The CDC classified the Omicron variant, B.1.1.529, as a “Variant of Concern” on Nov. 30. Variants are classified as variants of concern if they show evidence of being more contagious, causing more severe illness or resistance to diagnostics, treatments or vaccines.
“We are concerned, although not surprised, about the discovery of the Omicron variant in Michigan,” said MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel. “We continue to urge Michiganders ages 5 and up to get vaccinated and continue participating in measures we know slow the spread of the virus by wearing well-fitting masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and testing for COVID-19.
“Vaccines are our best defense against the virus and how we can manage the spread of COVID-19.”
According to the CDC, the Omicron variant will likely spread more easily than the original coronavirus strain. How easily Omicron spreads compared to the Delta variant remains unknown.
Michigan continues to see a high rate of COVID-19 infections. This week, WXYZ reported that Michigan had more than 220,000 active cases on Dec. 3, the highest since the pandemic began in March 2020.
State health officials say there are several factors contributing to current case rates. However, according to state data, unvaccinated persons have 4.4 times the risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and 9.3 times the risk of dying from COVID-19 than people who are fully vaccinated.
Viruses constantly change through mutation and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time.
For now, Delta continues to be the dominant strain in Michigan and globally. Some initial reports out of South Africa indicate the severity of an Omicron could be more contagious than previous variants while causing milder disease, but experts are warning definitive data won’t be available for weeks. The WHO said “even if the severity is equal or potentially even lower than for Delta variant, it is expected that hospitalizations will increase if more people become infected.”