Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

On Dec. 4, Connecticut officials announced the state’s first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

The Omicron variant was detected in a fully vaccinated man in his 60s from Hartford County, according to a press release from the office of Gov. Ned Lamont. The man first tested positive for COVID-19 with an at-home test taken on Nov. 29, and the presence of the Omicron variant was confirmed by sequencing at the Connecticut State Public Health Laboratory. According to the press release, a family member of the individual developed mild symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 23 after attending the Anime NYC 2021 convention, which was held from Nov. 19 to Nov. 21. The family member was also fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“As I’ve been saying for the last several days, given the speed that this new variant has been spreading around the world and its positive identification in several states, we presumed it was already in our state and the information we received from the lab today confirms that fact,” Lamont said in the press release.

The Omicron variant was designated a variant of concern in a statement released by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26. According to the statement, on Nov. 24, South Africa was the first to report the variant to the WHO. 

Chief Medical Officer at Yale New Haven Hospital Thomas Balcezak noted that he was not surprised that the Omicron variant has appeared in Connecticut given the state’s proximity to New York City. He pointed out that many cases are tied to the anime convention and that he was surprised that Connecticut had not already detected the Omicron variant.

“I would anticipate that this anime conference probably had a lot of mingling of folks that weren’t masked,” Balcezak said. “I guess there’s really nothing new here, except that the Omicron virus, based on some really preliminary data out of South Africa, is probably a lot more infectious than Delta.”

In an email to the News, public health professor Howard Forman wrote that the actual number of Omicron cases in the state is likely much larger, given that only some cases are sequenced and that the documented case is from Nov. 27. According to Forman, we can expect to learn more about the extent of Omicron’s spread over the next 7-10 days.

“This will begin to tell us about how transmissible Omicron is; how relatively protective (or not) prior vaccination and boosters are; and how serious the illness is in the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations,” Forman wrote. 

Forman also asserted that the current wave of the Delta variant still poses a more immediate threat, and the emergence of the variant in Connecticut does not change any current policies. However, in a Dec. 5 email to Yale undergraduate students, Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd detailed new required twice-a-week testing guidelines, regardless of vaccination status, for students to follow until the end of the semester. Forman further emphasized the importance of vaccination, boosters, indoor masking and testing. 

In an email to the News, epidemiology professor Akiko Iwasaki agreed that there are likely undetected cases of the variant spreading in the community. Although vaccination rates are high among the Yale community, she highlighted that the mutations in the spike protein in this variant can escape from existing immunity.

“While we still do not know exactly how transmissible the variant is, severity of disease, what percentage of [people] infected with [the virus] develop long COVID, or how well it escapes existing immunity, based on the number of mutations and the types of mutations, it is likely to significantly reduce protection conferred by vaccine- or infection-acquired immune responses and therapies like monoclonal antibodies,” Iwasaki wrote.

Iwasaki noted that people should take multiple safety measures in response to the variant and that protecting the community from Omicron will require a collective community effort. 

Balcezak does not think that travel itself is causing the spread of the variant, but rather, travel without employing adequate public health measures.

“If we were able to have everyone vaccinated and masked and had some surveillance testing, along with follow up of positive cases and contact tracing, travel could be very safe,” Balcezak said. “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, with regards to mass vaccination.”

Balcezak said that Yale New Haven Hospital should be prepared to handle a wave of Omicron variant cases and noted that the hospital handled almost 900 patients in April of 2020. However, he noted that he hopes that the situation will not reach that level again.

On Dec. 1, the University changed its COVID-19 alert level from green to yellow, citing concerns about the variant in a message sent to the Yale community by University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler. 

As of Dec. 5, the New York Times reported that Omicron has been detected in 16 states.

SOPHIE WANG
Sophie Wang covers COVID-19 and Yale New-Haven Health. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a freshman in Berkeley College prospectively majoring in statistics & data science and English.
AISLINN KINSELLA