BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday that state health officials have confirmed the first three cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant in Maryland residents. All three of the cases announced involve individuals from Baltimore, Hogan said.
Two cases are from the same household, including a vaccinated individual who recently traveled to South Africa and an unvaccinated person who was a close contact of that individual. A third unrelated case involves a vaccinated individual with no known recent travel history.
None of the affected individuals are currently hospitalized.
Contact tracing efforts are already underway to ensure that potential close contacts are quickly identified, quarantined, and tested, the governor said.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician said it’s likely there are more omicron variant cases we don’t know about.
“I suspect there are more than three in Maryland," Adalja said. "I suspect there’s more than three in a lot of states that are only reporting one because this is something that was likely spreading for some time before anyone even noticed it. And it’s going to just take some time for people to understand the full spread because we don’t test every case of covid."
Dr. Adalja said with this new variant, breakthrough cases could become more common.
The CDC defines community spread as a case in which a person does not know how or where they became infected. The third Maryland omicron case would seem to fall under that definition.
"What the concern is and what’s starting to be demonstrated is that omicron can get around some of the immunity meaning that the antibodies that you have formed from vaccines, from prior infections, may not be enough to block omicron from actually causing an infection," Adalja said.
The omicron variant was designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26. The omicron variant has now been reported in nearly 40 countries.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it can thwart vaccines and whether it makes people as sick as the original strain.
"While breakthroughs might be more common with this variant than others it’s likely going to be the vaccine is still able to protect us against what matters," Adalja said. "It looks like at least in the vaccinated population even if you get a breakthrough it seems to be mild because the protection that the vaccine gives you is stronger than just the antibody.”
So far in Maryland, as of Dec. 2, 99.9% of seniors are vaccinated, as well as 88.9% of all adults.
Gov. Hogan assured Marylanders in a Thursday press conference that if the variant was in Maryland, it would be caught quickly due to the state'sextensive sequencing efforts.
Hogan said that Maryland has one of the strongest variant identification surveillance programs in the country and that the state is now sequencing at three times the rate recommended by experts.
As a precaution, Gov. Hogan is urging all Marylanders 18 and over to go get a booster shot as soon as possible, as all adults are eligible for the shot in the state.
Maryland has so far administered more than 1 million booster shots.
MDH Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services, Dr. Jinlene Chan, confirmed that currently available PCR diagnostic tests and rapid antigen tests will detect COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant. “In addition to getting booster shots, we strongly recommend that Marylanders who have recently returned from international travel or are symptomatic in any way get tested immediately,” she added.
Just a day after the first known U.S. omicron variant case was found in California, tests showed the variant had already infected at least five people in the New York City metropolitan area, plus a man from Minnesota who had attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November.
Officials reported another case in a Colorado woman who had recently traveled to southern Africa.
The variant was also confirmed in an unvaccinated Hawaii resident with no recent travel history, state health officials said.
“We urge Marylanders to continue taking precautions to keep themselves and their loved ones 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. This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we will continue to keep Marylanders updated as new information becomes available,” Gov. Hogan said via press release.
The governor's office added that viruses constantly change, or mutate and that new variants of viruses are expected to occur over time.
In addition to the omicron variant, other variants that have been identified so far in the state include the Alpha variant and the Beta variant, both first identified in Maryland in January; the Gamma variant first identified in Maryland in February; and the Delta variant, first identified in Maryland this spring.
Of these variants, only Delta and omicron are still considered variants of concern.
Sign up for the Get Up DC newsletter: Your forecast. Your commute. Your news.
Sign up for the Capitol Breach email newsletter, delivering the latest breaking news and a roundup of the investigation into the Capitol Riots on January 6, 2021.