The arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the United States has caused health officials in some communities to restart contact tracing operations in an effort to slow and better understand its spread as scientists study the extent to which it is contagious and whether it can thwart vaccines.
In New York, officials quickly contacted a man who had tested positive for the variant and attended a spirited conference at a Manhattan convention center last month with more than 50,000 people. Five other participants were also infected with the coronavirus, although officials do not yet know if it was the omicron variant.
“As to what we have learned about this conference at the Javits Center and these additional cases, our test and trace team is immediately working with each affected person to determine who else they have come into contact with. This contact tracing is absolutely crucial,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Once the global epicenter of the pandemic, New York has the largest contact tracing effort in the country. The city identified four cases of omicron on Thursday, and a fifth was discovered in neighboring Suffolk County on eastern Long Island.
The variant has been detected in a handful of other states so far, including California, Colorado and Hawaii.
Contact tracers have been busy in Nebraska after six cases of omicron were confirmed on Friday. One of the people had recently returned from a visit to Nigeria, and the other five were close contacts with that person.
In Philadelphia, officials were working to trace contacts of a man in his 30s who is the first Pennsylvania resident infected with the variant, the city’s public health department said.
And in Maryland, authorities were racing to track down, quarantine and test the close contacts of three Baltimore-area people who are the first known cases in the state. Two are from the same household, including a vaccinated person who recently traveled to South Africa, and the third has no recent travel history and is unrelated to the other two.
Dr Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territory Health Officials, said “more and more” contact tracing efforts are expected in the coming days, in part because uncertainty about the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. be against omicron.
Contact tracing is an essential tool in the pandemic response, allowing health services to notify people who have been in close contact with an infected person and slow the progression of COVID-19.
“Contact tracing can give us information on how it is spreading and hopefully break chains of transmission to stop clusters and outbreaks, or at least delay them until we know more. and that we understand what our next steps need to be,” said lead researcher Crystal Watson. at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Although much is still unknown about the variant, early reports are ringing alarm bells. New cases of COVID-19 in South Africa, which first alerted the world to omicron last week, have risen from around 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday.
Some of the US cases involve people who had not traveled recently, meaning the variant was likely already circulating domestically in parts of the country.
In New York, the three-day anime festival in November presents a staffing challenge for plotters due to the large number of attendees. The only known omicron infection involved a Minnesota man.
Officials have cautioned against linking the other five coronavirus cases directly to the event.
“The really important point here is that this is five cases out of a denominator of tens of thousands of people at this conference. And further, we have not established any link between these five cases and widespread transmission at the conference,” said Ted Long, executive director of the NYC Test & Trace Corps, which runs the city’s contact tracing program. .
Proof of vaccination was required for admission, as required by city law, and masks were also required.
Officials said they contacted the 36,500 convention attendees, vendors and exhibitors whose contact details they had, by email, text message or phone call. But they decided there was no need to contact every attendee because the infected man did not appear to have close New York-based contacts.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, officials are investigating “a circle of contacts” for the man who was allegedly infected at the conference, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s director of infectious diseases.
“Part of the reason we listed where it had been – the anime convention in New York – is because there were so many people who attended that event. It wouldn’t be possible for him or really anyone to identify everyone they were potentially in contact with,” Ehresmann said.
Amid the rise of the delta variant, health investigators across the United States have been overwhelmed and scaled back contact tracing operations, finding it nearly impossible to track the deluge of new infections, administer vaccines and doing research at the same time.
Many health officials ultimately focused on school exposures or potential super-spreading incidents where large numbers of people were at risk of exposure.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, expects that to eventually happen with omicron.
“Contact tracing and sequencing will allow us to paint with a broad brush,” Schaffner said. “But we won’t be able to track it down in every case, and at some point when you know it’s there and spreading, why do we have to do this?”
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