Maryland health officials announced Friday the detection of the first three cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant, all in the Baltimore area.
Officials said two of the individuals live in the same household, and one recently traveled to South Africa, where the troubling new variant was first detected. The third individual was described as an “unrelated case” with no known recent travel history.
Two of the three people who tested positive are vaccinated against COVID-19, state health officials said: the person who traveled and the third individual. The traveler’s close contact is not vaccinated. None have required hospitalization, officials said.
The state has been bracing for the variant’s arrival since it was detected in the United States for the first time Wednesday, when Gov. Larry Hogan announced the health department will bolster efforts to sequence samples from positive coronavirus cases to detect for omicron and other variants. The state also sent rapid coronavirus tests to the international terminal at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, which sees 7,000 international travelers each week.
It’s been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization because it has caused a spike in cases in some areas, and researchers are now working to determine if it is more contagious and deadly than earlier strains. They are also working to learn whether the variant’s mutations affect how sick it makes people, how quickly it spreads and how well vaccines work against it.
Public health officials and experts across Maryland urged the public to stay vigilant against the new variant.
“The good news is that we know what we need to do to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant. It’s the same as what we do now. Get vaccinated, wear your mask in public settings, and get tested if you have symptoms,” Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman said.
The health department issued guidance on vaccination, masking, social distancing, hand washing and testing Friday. It also encouraged business owners to implement a “vaccination or testing” requirement in workplace settings, require masking indoors and make face coverings available, improve ventilation indoors and incentivize or mandate vaccinations.
State public health workers identified the omicron cases in a Maryland Department of Health laboratory. Contact tracing efforts are underway to determine who else may be infected, according to a Friday news release sent by Hogan’s office.
Hogan credited the state’s “aggressive surveillance system” with finding omicron so quickly in the state. He encouraged Marylanders to “continue taking precautions” to keep themselves 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,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we will continue to keep Marylanders updated as new information becomes available.”
Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said earlier this week that he expected omicron cases already were in Maryland. The question, he said, is if Maryland and the rest of the country are ready.
“The reality is that if omicron is a more transmissible variant, it will only do what we’ve seen with the Delta variant faster,” Sehgal said Wednesday.
This article will be updated.
Baltimore Sun reporters Taylor DeVille and Alex Mann contributed to this article.