South Africa Reports Jump in Cases, US Detects More Omicron Variant

Carolyn Crist

December 03, 2021

South Africa reported another major increase in new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, with more than 11,500 daily cases and a 22% test positivity rate, according to the latest data from the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

That's up from 8,400 new cases and a 16% positivity rate on Wednesday. Less than 2 weeks ago, South Africa was reporting about 300 new cases per day and a 2% positivity rate.

Since doctors in South Africa first identified the new variant last week, cases have spiked by more than 10 times.

The country's top public health officials said they expect the aggressive rise to continue as Omicron quickly becomes the dominant variant of the coronavirus, displacing the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, according to Axios.

In the past 24 hours, 274 people in South Africa have been hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the report. About 2,900 people are in hospitals across the country for COVID-19.

As of Thursday, about 24% of the population in South Africa was fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the country's Department of Health. Among those, nearly 43% of adults are fully vaccinated, which ranges from 34% to 48% across the provinces.

Those are among the highest rates in Africa, which has an average of 7% across the continent, but far behind many wealthy countries, according to the BBC. Supply has been a major roadblock, and provinces are now focusing on vaccine hesitancy as well.

The rate of vaccination in South Africa had been falling for several weeks but has begun to tick upward again with the news of the Omicron variant, the BBC reported. More than 150,000 shots were given within the last 24 hours, including nearly 9,000 booster shots.

More Omicron Cases Detected in US

Several more cases of the Omicron variant were reported in the U.S. on Thursday, including five people in New York and new cases in California, Colorado, Hawaii, and Minnesota, according to The New York Times.

U.S. health officials said that community spread is now inevitable, with the Minnesota case being tied to a large anime convention in New York City last week.

"This news is concerning, but it is not a surprise," Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement.

"We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world," he said.

The vaccinated man from Minnesota had recently traveled to the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center, which hosted 53,000 attendees Nov. 19-21. He had mild symptoms on Nov. 22 and got tested on Nov. 24. His symptoms have now cleared up.

New York officials have encouraged convention attendees to get tested. The five Omicron cases confirmed in the state appeared to be unrelated to the convention, according to a news release.

The five cases were a woman in Suffolk County who recently returned from South Africa, two residents in Queens, one resident in Brooklyn, and another person in New York City who traveled recently. The cases appear to be unrelated to each other as well.

In Colorado, the state's first Omicron case was detected in a fully vaccinated resident who had recently returned from southern Africa for tourism, according to a news release. She has mild symptoms and is isolating at home.

In California, a second Omicron case was detected in Los Angeles in a fully vaccinated resident who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22, according to a news release. The person has mild symptoms and is isolating at home. The first case in California was reported in San Francisco on Wednesday.

An Oahu resident with no history of travel was the first Omicron case in Hawaii. The person had previously contracted COVID-19 but wasn't vaccinated and has moderate symptoms.

"This is a case of community spread," the state's Department of Health said in a statement.

At a joint news conference on Thursday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was "no cause for alarm" and urged people not to panic.

"The best thing that everyone can do is realize we're not defenseless against this variant at all," Hochul said. "We're not having shutdowns. We're not changing our protocols."

They encouraged people to get vaccinated, take booster shots, and follow COVID-19 safety precautions.

"We have to assume there's community spread," de Blasio said, predicting that New York and the U.S. would detect more Omicron cases in the coming days.

Prior Infection Offers Little Protection Against Omicron, Study Shows

A previous coronavirus infection appears to provide little immunity against the new Omicron variant, according to a new study from scientists in South Africa. The preprint study hasn't yet been peer-reviewed or published by a scientific journal.

Health officials in South Africa have seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases among people who had already been infected. In the study, they found more than 35,000 suspected reinfections among nearly 3 million people who had a positive test result at least 3 months ago.

The study authors attribute the increase to the Omicron variant, noting that the Beta and Delta variants didn't cause many reinfections.

"Population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infections," they wrote.

Since the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa last week, it has become the dominant form of the virus in the country, making up more than 70% of cases analyzed from November.

As of Friday morning, 28 countries across six continents have reported 447 cases to GISAID, a global genomic sequencing database. South Africa has reported 217 of those cases.

The Omicron variant has dozens of mutations that haven't been observed together in other variants, which could make it more transmissible. Scientists are still studying whether Omicron could be more contagious, lead to more severe disease, and escape current vaccines.

"This finding has important implications for public health planning, particularly in countries like South Africa with high rates of immunity from prior infection," the study authors wrote. "Urgent questions remain whether Omicron is also able to evade vaccine-induced immunity and the potential implications of reduced immunity to infection on protection against severe disease and death."

Sources:

South Africa National Institute for Communicable Diseases: "Latest Confirmed Cases of COVID-19 in South Africa (2 December 2021)."

Axios: "COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming."

South Africa Department of Health: "COVID-19 Vaccination Summary as at 17:00 2 Dec. 2021."

BBC: "Covid: South Africa new cases surge as Omicron spreads.

The New York Times: "Several more Omicron cases are detected in the U.S."

Minnesota Department of Health: "News Release: Lab testing confirms state's first COVID-19 case involving Omicron variant."

New York State: "Governor Hochul Announces Five Confirmed COVID-19 Omicron Variant Cases in New York."

Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment: "COVID-19 omicron variant confirmed in Colorado."

County of Los Angeles Public Health: "Los Angeles County Reports First Case of the Omicron Variant."

Hawaii Department of Health: "Hawaii Department of Health Laboratory Detects Omicron Variant in Hawaii."

New York State: "Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on the Omicron Variant."

medRxiv: "Increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection associated with emergency of the Omicron variant in South Africa."

GISAID: "Map of tracked variant occurrence: B.1.1.529."

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