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CDC director: Omicron cases 'likely to rise' as variant detected in 16 states

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CDC director: Omicron cases 'likely to rise' as variant detected in 16 states
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned Sunday that cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant are "likely to rise" as they have been detected in at least 16 states. File Pool Photo by Greg Nash/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 5 (UPI) -- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Sunday warned that Omicron cases in the United States are likely to rise as the COVID-19 variant has already been detected in 17 states.

Appearing on ABC News This Week, Walensky said the agency was "closely" following the several dozen cases it has been made aware of while working to determine how transmissible the variant is and how effective currently available COVID-19 vaccines are at combatting infections.

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"We are every day hearing about more and more probable cases so that number is likely to rise," Walensky said.

The first case of Omicron in the United States was reported in California on Wednesday with subsequent cases discovered in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin. Georgia and Louisiana were added to the list Sunday.

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Some cases came from patients who recently traveled to South Africa, where scientists first identified the variant, while others had no travel history, potentially indicating community spread.

A preprint study from researchers from Cambridge, Mass.-based firm, Nference, found that the Omicron variant shares a snippet of genetic code with a coronavirus that can cause the common cold, potentially making it more transmissible and resistant to some immunities.

Walensky on Sunday said the CDC was still studying how Omicron differs from other variants.

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"We know it has many mutations, more mutations than prior variants," she said. "Many of those mutations have been associated with more transmissible variants, with evasion of some of our therapeutics and potentially evasion of some of our immunity, and that's what we're watching really carefully."

The United States has reported a total of 49,073,121 cases and 788,310 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic as Walensky said Sunday that "99.9%" of new cases continue to be the Delta variant despite Omicron rapidly spreading in South Africa and becoming the dominant strain.

She added she was "hopeful" current vaccines will work to at least prevent severe disease from the virus as CDC data shows that 70.9% of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine dose, 59.8% of people are fully vaccinated and 22.8% of fully vaccinated Americans have received an additional booster dose.

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"We know from a vaccine standpoint that there more mutations a single variant has, the more immunity you really need to have in order to combat that variant, which is why right now we're really pushing to get more people vaccinated and more people boosted to really boost that immunity in every single individual," said Walensky.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on Sunday told CBS News' Face the Nation that Americans can still gather for the holiday season with "low" risk of virus spread provided families follow safety precautions such as testing and getting vaccinated.

"If you do as many families, you get vaccinated and boosted, you use testing judiciously before you gather, you gather in well ventilated spaces and use masks whenever you can in public indoor spaces, your risk can be quite low and your holidays can be quite fulfilling," he said.

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