Maryland health officials announced Friday the detection of the first three cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant, all in the Baltimore area.
Officials said two of the individuals live in the same household, and one recently traveled to South Africa, where the troubling new variant was first detected. The third individual was described as an “unrelated case” with no known recent travel history.
Two of the three people who tested positive are vaccinated against COVID-19, state health officials said: the person who traveled and the third individual. The traveler’s close contact is not vaccinated. None have required hospitalization, officials said.
It was not clear when, exactly, the three cases were detected, but the first cases of omicron in the U.S. were logged on Wednesday.
The state has been bracing for the variant’s arrival, and Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday that the health department will bolster efforts to sequence samples from positive coronavirus cases to detect for omicron and other variants. The state also sent rapid coronavirus tests to the international terminal at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, which sees 7,000 international travelers each week.
It’s been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization because it has caused a spike in cases in some areas, and researchers are now working to determine if it is more contagious and deadly than earlier strains. They are also working to learn whether the variant’s mutations affect how sick it makes people, how quickly it spreads and how well vaccines work against it.
Christopher Thompson, immunologist and associate professor in the department of biology at Loyola University Maryland, said early data shows that omicron is “significantly more” transmissible than earlier variants. But infections may not be as severe, he said.
“It’s certainly a cause for concern, but not a ‘variant of panic,’” said Thompson. “We’ve seen mostly all mild infections; but we don’t know if that’s going to be the rule or the majority. We don’t know how this will affect immunocompromised individuals, or children, or the elderly. We still need to be really careful about this.”
Public health officials and experts across Maryland also urged the public to stay vigilant against the new variant.
“The good news is that we know what we need to do to prevent the spread of the omicron variant. It’s the same as what we do now. Get vaccinated, wear your mask in public settings, and get tested if you have symptoms,” Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman said in a statement.
The health department issued guidance on vaccination, masking, social distancing, hand washing and testing Friday. It also encouraged business owners to implement a “vaccination or testing” requirement in workplace settings, require masking indoors and make face coverings available, improve ventilation indoors and incentivize or mandate vaccinations.
State public health workers identified the omicron cases in a Maryland Department of Health laboratory. Contact tracing efforts are underway to determine who else may be infected, according to a Friday news release sent by Hogan’s office.
Hogan credited the state’s “aggressive surveillance system” with finding omicron so quickly in the state. He encouraged Marylanders to “continue taking precautions” to keep themselves safe.
“Getting a vaccine or a booster shot is the single most important thing that you can do to protect yourself and those around you,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we will continue to keep Marylanders updated as new information becomes available.”
The omicron cases were not surprising to experts including Andrew Pekosz, professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He said researchers are comparing omicron to the delta variant now dominating cases in the U.S. and assessing how much protection is lost from vaccines.
“We knew it wouldn’t evade all the protections,” he said. “From other viruses, particularly influenza, we know that even when vaccines and strains circulating aren’t perfect matches we see protections from severe disease. We have to keep our eye on the prize: minimize hospitalizations, minimize severe disease and death. From all indications, your vaccine will protect you from severe disease.”
He said cases in South Africa so far have seemed mild, but they could progress. So scientists and doctors will be watching over the next week to learn more about omicron, he said.
He added that South Africa has a low vaccination rate, about 25%, and a high infection rate. People who were infected with COVID-19 before seem to be getting reinfected with the omicron variant.
“So we’ll learn how vaccination versus prior infection holds up to the omicron variant,” he said. “Natural immunity tends to produce a spectrum of immune responses. Two months later you may barely see antibodies in the infected people. Vaccine consistently gets you to a high antibody level. So infected people should still get vaccinated.”
He also said the next important thing to watch for will be authorization of antivirals that can reduce the risk of severe disease once people are newly infected.
”They could be a game changer,” he said.
Also, Maryland is doing a good job sequencing for variants, with labs at Hopkins and Maryland joining the state lab in looking for omicron and others. “Not every state is doing as good a job as Maryland,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Taylor DeVille and Alex Mann contributed to this article.