A second case of the super-mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected in the U.S. in a Minnesota resident who recently returned home from an anime convention in New York City, the Minnesota Department of Health announced Thursday.
Hours later, the number of states with confirmed cases of the new variant had grown from two—California was first—to 11.
Later Thursday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul revealed that five cases of the new variant had been identified within the Empire State, and officials also announced cases in Colorado and Hawaii. By Friday, New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Utah announced they had detected cases as well.
That brought the number of states with instances of the new variant to at least 11, though experts suspect the number is much higher.
The Minnesota resident, an adult male living in Hennepin County, is fully vaccinated and only has mild symptoms. He fell ill on Nov. 22 and got tested two days later. He had traveled to New York for the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center from Nov. 19-21.
According to its Twitter page, the three-day event welcomed a whopping 53,000 fans—up from 46,000 in 2019 and organizers appeared to acknowledge that they were underprepared for the rush.
“Everything was packed much, much more,” the event’s founder, Peter Tatara said in a statement on Sunday. Staff struggled to manage “aggressive scalping, scamming and pure counterfeit badges,” he said and he apologized for “challenges with crowding.”
Victoria Gottesman, 20, said she attended the second day of the convention, on her birthday, with her boyfriend and five friends and found news of the second case “pretty concerning.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, she described an understaffed event, with lengthy lines where vaccine cards weren’t “thoroughly checked.” She said the vast majority of people were masked up, but some cosplayers refused to follow protocol.
“They just looked at [the vaccine cards] for like a second and gave us a wristband,” she said. “They just checked to see that something was written on a card.”
“I feel like certain protocol wasn’t being followed by attendees and vendors,” she added. “Some of them were just taking their mask off to talk to me.”
While Gottesman is fully vaccinated, and hasn’t experienced any symptoms since the event, she intends to get tested particularly because she works at a pharmacy where she regularly deals with vulnerable people.
“There should have been three times as many staff members,” she said, adding that it was unclear if staff were enforcing the masking rules.
In a statement, Anime NYC said they had “confirmed with New York’s health officials that the event followed all guidance laid out by the city and state, including mask requirements and proof of vaccination for all individuals.” Organizers are now working with city officials to recomment all attendees get tested, the statement said.
Not much is known yet about the transmissibility and severity of the Omicron variant and the Minnesota man’s case only raises more questions than answers.
He fell ill on Nov. 22, two days before the world’s first case of Omicron was reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa. Two days later, the WHO labeled it a “variant of concern.”
Many cases of Omicron detected since then has been in individuals with connections to southern Africa. However, the Minnesota Health Department’s statement said the Hennepin County man’s only recent travel was to New York City.
Experts believe the variant was likely circulating the globe long before it was detected in South Africa. For example, nine cases in Scotland have been traced back to a single private event on Nov. 20, and those infected had no history of travel to southern Africa. In the Netherlands, Omicron has been detected in samples taken as early as Nov. 19.
The U.S.’s first Omicron case was announced Wednesday in a person who arrived in California on Nov. 22 from South Africa, where the variant was first detected. The person is fully vaccinated and has mild symptoms.
Anyone who went to the Anime conference is urged to get tested and every person who attended will be contacted, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday.
“This is not cause for alarm,” she said. “It was foreseen ever since it was first reported out of South Africa.”
She encouraged everyone to get vaccinated, get a booster shot and “get ready.”
The White House unveiled its plan to combat Omicron on Thursday, including new testing requirements for all incoming travelers and a renewed push for booster shots for the nearly 100 million Americans who have not yet had one.
Like a host of other countries, the U.S. has also banned passengers coming from eight countries in southern Africa.
But Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, who has served on advisory boards and review panels for the WHO and CDC, said the travel bans “make absolutely no sense at all.”
“There’s no point in doing partial travel bans, because these viruses are so transmissible they’re just going to pop up in all kinds of different places,” he told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
“By the time they put travel bans in southern Africa,” Omicron cases “had already been described in a number of countries.”
Omicron is of particular concern because it has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells.
“This is an insane amount of change,” epidemiologist Katelyn Jeteline wrote in an explainer on Omicron. “As a comparison, Delta had 9 changes on the spike protein.”