What do we know about the omicron variant in Minnesota?

A woman gets a vaccine shot.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm receives a COVID-19 vaccine booster from pharmacist Mike Heaton in Minneapolis on Oct. 26. State health officials on Thursday confirmed a case of the new omicron coronavirus variant involving a Minnesota resident with a recent travel history to New York.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 2 p.m., Dec. 3 | Posted: 4:53 p.m., Dec. 2

State health officials expected to find omicron variant in Minnesota, especially given an ability to detect changes in the coronavirus using gene sequencing. And Thursday, those officials publicly confirmed the first case in a Minnesota resident.

What do we know about the case in Minnesota?

Minnesota has the second confirmed case of omicron COVID-19 variant in the United States, after California announced the nation’s first confirmed case on Wednesday. The Minnesota resident tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 24, shortly after attending an anime convention at the Javits Center.

The Minnesota Department of Health says they confirmed the presence of the omicron variant Wednesday afternoon. They say the man, who lives in Hennepin County, is quarantining at home. He experienced mild symptoms and is recovering. The man “most likely” contracted the variant in New York, authorities said.

State health officials also say a close contact of the known case has tested positive for COVID-19 using a rapid test but they have yet to confirm whether the person has the omicron variant.

Is omicron more contagious or dangerous than other variants like delta?

The world just learned about the new variant last month, and there are still far more questions than answers at this point about it.

Matthew Binnicker, the vice chair of practice at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic, says there are three main reasons for concern around this variant.

First, is the unusually high number of mutations, especially in the spike protein. He says vaccines produce antibodies that bind to those spike proteins, so mutations may blunt that  ability. And that may make vaccines less effective in stopping infection. The number of mutations discovered on omicron is one of the reasons the World Health Organization quickly identified it as a “variant of concern.”

Second, the dramatic rise in cases in South Africa caused by this variant are indicating the variant may be more transmissible.

He says research is focused on omicron’s many mutations.

“So when scientists are looking at where the mutations are present, and these variants, they can make predictions of whether vaccination, and also prior immunity will be able to neutralize or target the virus” Binnicker said. “And so there's some early evidence that the number and location of these mutations may impact the efficacy of vaccination.”

Binnicker says it’s still possible vaccines will have some efficacy against omicron, but may not be as effective as they are against the other variants.

If I'm vaccinated, can I still get infected with omicron? What about boosters?

Until there are more cases of omicron, it’s difficult to know for sure.

The first two cases identified in the U.S. are in individuals who have been vaccinated.

In the California case, the individual had received two doses of a vaccine, but was not yet eligible for a booster. The Minnesota patient had his initial vaccine doses as well as a booster.

In both cases, the individuals are said to be experiencing mild symptoms. Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said that could be a sign the vaccines are helping to mitigate the severity of the virus.

“There's obviously a lot we need to learn about omicron going forward. But we're delighted that the initial cases who have had vaccine breakthrough have had mild illness,” Ehresmann said. “Certainly if we can prevent infection in the first place, great, but ultimately our goal of vaccination is to limit hospitalizations and prevent death.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website: “Breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are expected, but vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death. Early evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the omicron variant can spread the virus to others.”

Dr. Priya Sampathkumar, an associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, says while the omicron variant does appear to be more transmissible, researchers believe vaccines do offer some protection, and cases appear to be milder than previous variants.

"The fact that [the Minnesota patient] acquired the infection despite all of this, it does indicate that the virus is very infectious. But he also recovered very quickly, he didn't really become very sick. He did not need hospitalization,” she told Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer. “I'm taking that as good news [and] bad news."

Should I be taking any more precautions than for previous variants? Is it safe to travel or go to family gatherings?

Given how little is known at this point about the new variant, health officials are saying that people should continue to use the same precautions they have throughout the pandemic — such as wearing masks, avoiding large crowds indoors, getting vaccinated and seeking testing when you believe you have been exposed or feel sick.

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm urged Minnesotans to use all the prevention tools they can.

“Even though we might feel like we're done with the pandemic, it is most certainly not done with us,” Malcolm said. “Just the fact that that omicron has shown up in the world and it's shown up in our country and in our state helps to underscore for people that we still all need to pay attention to this and work together to stay ahead of it and we can do that.”