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California goes on the offensive as Omicron variant threat grows

By Aldon Thomas Stiles

December 7, 2021

Graphic courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Three days after Thanksgiving, Gov. Gavin Newsom went online to address the new COVID-19 Omicron variant, a version of the virus with at least 50 mutations, according to the World Health Organization.

Twenty-six of these mutations have never been detected before, scientists say. “California is monitoring the new variant,” Newsom tweeted.

“We will continue to be guided by data and science. Right now, the best way we know to protect ourselves is to get vaccinated and get your booster. Go today. Don’t wait.” The variant was first identified by a South African scientist and has since surfaced in several other Southern African and European nations, and has now been detected in at least 16 states in the United States, including California.

In California, the Omicron variant was first detected in San Francisco on Dec. 1.

Since then, Alameda County public health officials have confirmed five new cases with mild symptoms. All of them were people who attended a wedding in Wisconsin where they likely contracted the virus. Gov. Newsom responded to the news with a tweet last Wednesday. “CA’s large-scale testing and early detection systems have found the Omicron COVID-19 variant in California,” Newsom tweeted on Dec. 1. “We should assume that it’s in other states as well. There’s no reason to panic--but we should remain vigilant. That means getting vaccinated. Get boosted. Wear a mask indoors.”

Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D-San Diego), a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist, said the state has taken several steps to protect Californians and contain the variant, including “doubling down on COVID-19 vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective and free vaccines.”

Weber was speaking at a briefing organized for Black media last Friday. She said the California Department of Health is monitoring the presence of the variant throughout California and is partnering with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to support local public health departments and health care providers across the state. “The state is also preparing to increase COVID-19 testing at airports across California for U.S. citizens and legal residents returning from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi,” she said. “These countries are where higher rates of Omicron have been observed and may shift over time.”

President Joe Biden pushed for vaccines and boosters in preparation for this new variant. "As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advise. For now, the best way to strengthen your protection if you’re already vaccinated is to get a booster shot, immediately," Biden tweeted.

In a controversial move, Biden issued a travel ban from eight African countries where the higher numbers of the variant have been reported.

"The WHO has identified a new COVID variant which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries," Biden tweeted.

This United States’ response has been met with some criticism from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

"We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions," Ramaphosa said, arguing that the variant may have been detected in those countries, but there is no proof that it originated there. The above article by Aldon Thomas Stiles is reprinted with the permission of California Black Media, one of East Palo Alto Today's media partners.

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