Quick Take:

The California Department of Public Health said “it is only a matter of time before Omicron is detected in the United States. New variants will continue to evolve as long as there are large proportions of unvaccinated people.”

There is still so much unknown about the Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa amid a spike in infections there, including whether the variant is more transmissible, results in more severe illness or reduces the efficacy of vaccines.

But officials in California and beyond are saying the new variant, which has not yet been detected in the United States but is probably already here, requires close attention.

“California is closely monitoring the new Omicron variant, which has not yet arrived in California or the U.S. Vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic by safely protecting us against severe illness from COVID-19 and its variants,” Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, the state health officer and director of public health, said in a statement. “We are doubling down on our vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death.”

Officials are hopeful that a public-private partnership known as COVIDNet will help officials detect Omicron relatively early in California if or when it arrives here.

The California Department of Public Health said it is preparing to increase coronavirus testing at airports in California for U.S. citizens and legal residents returning from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, t, Mozambique and Malawi. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending travelers from those countries be tested within three to five days after arrival, quarantine themselves for seven days, and isolate and test if symptoms of COVID-19 develop.

The variant

The World Health Organization on Friday named the new variant Omicron and quickly classified it as a variant of concern. The news prompted multiple countries, including the U.S., to restrict travel from South Africa and other African nations. The U.S. travel restrictions take effect Monday.

“It clearly has been around for weeks. It has been moving silently. It takes a while for these kinds of things to come to your attention,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, professor of infectious diseases at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Still, he said, it is difficult to predict when the variant might pop up in California.

The California Department of Public Health said “it is only a matter of time before Omicron is detected in the United States. New variants will continue to evolve as long as there are large proportions of unvaccinated people.”

There has been some initial suggestion that the new variant causes generally mild illness, based on many of the cases followed in South Africa. But some scientists have cautioned that this suggestion may be more based on the fact that it has been younger, healthier people whose cases have been reported early, and that it really is too soon to know whether this variant causes more severe illness than existing variants.

“It is not an inevitability that viruses mutate towards becoming less pathogenic and virulent,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist formerly affiliated with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a tweet.

The California Department of Public Health said the new variant “has many mutations in important areas of the virus that impact infectiousness and the ability for immune systems to protect from infection. Some of the mutations are concerning to scientists because they are very different from other variants previously detected, and some are similar.

“We do not know at this time if this new variant causes more severe COVID-19 illness than other variants or how it might impact response to treatment,” the California Department of Public Health said in its statement.

The CDC, along with state and local agencies, said the best protection for now is following already-established COVID protocols.

“We know what it takes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. CDC recommends people follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing your hands frequently, and physically distancing from others. CDC also recommends that everyone 5 years and older protect themselves from COVID-19 by getting fully vaccinated. CDC encourages a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose for those who are eligible,” the CDC said in a statement Friday.

The identification of the Omicron variant developed rather quickly.

The first known specimen of the variant was collected in South Africa on Nov. 9, and scientists there announced the detection of the variant — then known as B.1.1.529 — on Wednesday. By Friday, the WHO named the variant Omicron, the same day the U.S. government ordered a travel ban for non-U.S. citizen travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi to take effect Monday.

Senior citizen gets vaccinated
Nurse Bella Pashabezyan and a paramedic administer a COVID-19 vaccine to Nelson Navarro, 69, in Glendale. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times) Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

California recommendations

These are some tips for the public on the Omicron variant from the California Department of Public Health:

  • Get a vaccination: All COVID-19 vaccines currently available in California are safe and effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. Vaccination will protect you and those you love. Californians ages 5 and older are now eligible for vaccination. Additionally, those over the age of 18 who are at least six months past their last dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or at least two months past J&J, are eligible for a booster. To be vaccinated or get a booster call (833) 422-4255 or visit the My Turn website.
  • Wear masks: CDPH recommends everyone wear masks in indoor public places (such as grocery stores and movie theaters) regardless of vaccination status. Masks are required in indoor public places for everyone who is not fully vaccinated. More restrictive local and workplace rules may apply. Everyone must wear a mask on public transit (airports, planes, trains, buses, stations) and in healthcare settings, K-12 schools, child care settings, correctional facilities, cooling centers and shelters. Learn more about our masking recommendations.
  • Get a test: You should immediately be tested for COVID-19 if you are feeling any symptoms — regardless of your vaccination status. COVID-19 symptoms can feel like a common cold (including just “the sniffles”), seasonal allergies or flu. COVID-19 testing in California is free to anyone who needs it. You can book a free test appointment, find a walk-in test clinic, or buy a self-test kit from your local drugstore. Find a testing site online or call 833-422-4255 or 211. Learn more about COVID-19 tests.
  • Stay home if sick: Stay home if you are feeling sick.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.