The COVID-19 omicron variant has reached Nebraska.
Public Health Solutions, the health department that covers Fillmore, Gage, Jefferson, Saline and Thayer counties, said Friday that lab testing has identified six cases among residents of the district.
The first case was likely in a person who traveled to Nigeria, the district said in a news release. That person returned home Nov. 23 and started experiencing coronavirus symptoms the next day.
The person immediately got tested and notified the health district of the international travel, which allowed officials to move at an “amazingly quick pace” in identifying the variant, said Kim Showalter, the district's health director.
The other five cases were likely linked to the original case through household contact, Showalter said. Of those five, only one person was vaccinated, and that person had not yet gotten a booster dose of the vaccine.
All of the infected people have had "mild-to-moderate" symptoms, she said, and no one has required hospitalization. The symptoms they experienced were typical of other strains of COVID-19, she said.
Showalter did not say in which county the people live, nor did she provide any other information such as ages or sexes.
Officials do not believe there is much, if any, risk of exposure to those not living in the household.
"At this point we don’t see any large public exposures of concern,” Showalter said.
Dr. Josue Gutierrez, the health department's medical director, urged people to remain calm.
"We don’t want to have anyone get too scared about this,” he said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday that there are no plans for any additional directed health measures due to the discovery of the latest variant in Nebraska.
“In Nebraska, we have learned how to balance living a more normal life while protecting our health care system,” Ricketts said in a news release. “Coronavirus will be with us forever. That’s why we’ll continue that balance while also urging everyone to get vaccinated."
The omicron variant was first identified last month in South Africa and since has been detected in dozens of countries. Nebraska is at least the sixth state to report a case.
Though the World Health Organization has labeled it a "variant of concern" because of its high number of mutations, there is no evidence so far that it causes more severe disease or is more adept at evading immunity in vaccinated people or those who have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection. There are some preliminary indications that it is spreading faster than the delta variant in South Africa, however.
Dr. Matthew Donahue, acting state epidemiologist, said the discovery of the variant in the state "reinforces the urgency for Nebraskans to get vaccinated."
"The more Nebraskans are vaccinated, the less opportunity new SARS-CoV-2 variants will have to take hold in the state," he said.
Nearly 63% of the state's population ages 5 and older is fully vaccinated. But vaccination rates lag behind the state average within the Public Health Solutions district, ranging from 49% in Thayer County to 57% in Saline County.
New cases of the coronavirus surged in Thayer, Saline and Jefferson counties over the past two weeks, with rates of 64 or more cases per 10,000 residents.
Donahue pointed out that the delta variant continues to be the predominant variant in Nebraska and causes unvaccinated people to be hospitalized at a rate 10 times higher than those who are vaccinated.
As of Thursday, there were 553 people hospitalized statewide for COVID-19, including 168 who were in intensive care.
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