A Minnesota man who recently traveled to New York City has tested positive for the omicron coronavirus variant. It is the country’s second reported case of the variant that has sparked concern across the globe.
The Minnesota Department of Health said the traveler attended the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center from November 19th through 21st. It added that the man is vaccinated and has since recovered from his mild case.
Event organizers say the festival attracted more than 50,000 people, all of whom were required to be vaccinated and wear masks indoors.
At a press conference Thursday morning, Gov. Kathy Hochul encouraged convention attendees to get tested, but said the news was not a cause for panic.
“We do anticipate there will be more cases,” Hochul said. “This is not cause for alarm. We knew it would come to New York state at some point.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio added that New Yorkers should "assume there is community spread of the variant." He said that the city's Test and Trace Corps will reach out to conference attendees, and that anyone experiencing symptoms should isolate themselves immediately.
State officials said New York's Wadsworth Center Laboratory in Albany was working to detect the variant in New York. The laboratory has the capacity to process about 100 samples per day, though the state is now averaging around 5,300 new COVID infections daily.
"We will find this, there's no question that it will be detected in New York State and in New York City," said Dr. Mary Bassett, who joined Hochul at her press briefing in Midtown for her second day on the job as the state's health commissioner. Bassett previously served as the head of New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "The fact that we have not detected it may mean that it's still extraordinarily rare here, that it is the preverbal needle in the haystack."
Since the start of the U.S. outbreak in mid-January 2020, New York has sequenced about 92,000 of its more than 2.7 million coronavirus cases, according to the global repository GISAID.
That’s about 3.3 percent and ranks 29th out of all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Compare that to Minnesota, which ranks 7th with 8.3% sequenced cases, or about 76,000 out of 915,000 confirmed infections.
More recently, over the past 90 days, Minnesota ranks 10th while New York is 19th. In addition to Wadsworth, New York City's Public Health Laboratory also analyzes several hundred COVID tests each day to screen for variants.
South African researchers reported omicron to the World Health Organization last week, after cases were detected there and in nearby nations. The variant has since been identified in 23 countries. The WHO has warned omicron’s high number of mutations could mean the variant is more transmissible or poses a threat to human immunity, but as of Thursday, these patterns have not been fully confirmed.
Virologists worldwide are now investigating whether it may be more contagious. On Thursday, the European CDC assessed that hundreds of cases and several weeks could be needed to fully understand omicron's severity, despite early reports of cases being mild. But research groups in South Africa and Canada are also reporting preliminary evidence that omicron carries a higher risk of reinfection for unvaccinated people, supporting an earlier WHO statement.
Last week, U.S. officials announced travel restrictions for eight African countries, while framing the arrival of omicron in the country as an inevitability. On Thursday, Hochul reminded state residents that they were “not defenseless” against the new variant. But she also emphasized the need for vaccination and other public health precautions to relieve the pressure being placed on the state’s hospitals. Several hospitals upstate and in Long Island are struggling under the ongoing surge, which is primarily due to delta variant cases.
“There is one way to address this, New Yorkers,” she said. “Get vaccinated, get boosted, and get ready.”
This story has been updated.