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Minnesota man is state's first omicron variant COVID case, 2nd in the US

The man had recently traveled to an anime convention in New York City.

ST. PAUL — A Hennepin County man who traveled to New York City in November to attend an anime conference has Minnesota's first confirmed omicron variant case of COVID-19, state health officials announced Thursday, Dec. 2.

It's the second case of the omicron variant confirmed in the U.S., following a case reported in California on Wednesday, Dec. 1. The World Health Organization last week announced omicron was a "variant of concern," though scientists are still working to determine whether it poses a greater risk of transmission or severe illness. It also isn't clear if omicron has greater potential than previous variants to elude the vaccine.

The Minnesota Department of Health said the man with the state's first omicron case flew to New York to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center Nov. 19-21, started to experience symptoms of COVID-19 on Nov. 22 and tested positive two days later. His symptoms were mild and have since resolved, according to MDH.

In a briefing call Thursday morning, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters the man had completed his initial vaccination series more than six months ago and had received a booster dose in early November. MDH did not immediately have information on which vaccine he had received.

While it isn't certain the man was infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19 at the conference, state infectious disease control director Kris Ehresmann said it is likely where he was exposed to the virus. Anime NYC reported 53,000 people attended the three-day conference.

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MDH is working with New York health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the case. One person in Minnesota who had close contact with the man who traveled to New York tested positive for COVID-19, Ehresmann said.

At an editorial board meeting with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz said he didn't plan to reinstate his emergency powers in the face of the omicron variant. He said it wasn't a surprise that the variant was detected in Minnesota since the state has one of the strongest sequencing labs in the country.

“I don’t think it’s a hair on fire (situation) with omicron, it’s simply execute the plan and the plan is to get as many people boosters as possible, continue to monitor and test as aggressively as we have,” Walz told Forum Communications editors and reporters.

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Malcolm and Walz credited Minnesota's strong infectious disease surveillance system for catching the omicron variant early on.
“It’s showing up is unsurprising, its showing up in Minnesota is also unsurprising because we have the nation’s best surveillance and sequencing,” Walz said. “We’re the ones that identified that this came from New York City at a large anime convention.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said health officials in that state anticipated that additional cases would arise among conference-goers but she said the positive case was not a cause for alarm. All those who attended the convention were set to be contacted by the state about the possible exposure. COVID-19 vaccinations were required to attend the convention, Hochul said.

In accordance with New York City policy, the convention also required attendees to wear masks and those older than 12 to provide proof of vaccination, according to the Anime NYC website.

Minnesota's Public Health Laboratory assistant director Sara Vetter said they started screening for omicron variant cases last weekend upon the WHO announcement of the new variant, adding that there are 10 other possible omicron variant specimens not tied to the state's first confirmed case.

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Between the state public health lab, the University of Minnesota and a national genomic sequencing effort, around 2,000 positive COVID-19 tests from Minnesota are screened for variants each week, Vetter said.

Through screening, Malcolm said the state identified the omicron variant case late Wednesday and reached out to the man who traveled to the conference in New York. The person with the first confirmed U.S. case had traveled to South Africa, but there is no known international travel tied to the Minnesota case, officials said. Since its detection in South Africa, the omicron variant has been identified in more than 20 countries and has prompted many governments to impose travel restrictions.

Minnesota's first confirmed omicron variant case comes as the state experiences a persistent fourth wave of infections driven by the delta variant of COVID-19. In November, hospitalizations for the disease climbed to levels not seen since late 2020, straining health care resources across the state. More than 1,500 people were in the hospital for COVID-19, according to MDH numbers released Thursday.

The federal government is deploying a third medical team in Minnesota to provide relief to hospitals, Gov. Tim Walz announced Thursday. At the editorial board meeting, he said much remains unknown about the new variant but the state's health guidance remains the same: that adults get vaccine boosters, encourage eligible children to get vaccines, that Minnesotans mask in crowded indoor settings and test if they're exposed to COVID or develop symptoms.

"We know that this virus is highly infectious and moves quickly throughout the world," Walz said. "Minnesotans know what to do to keep each other safe now — get the vaccine, get tested, wear a mask indoors, and get a booster."

Forum News Service reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.

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