By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Questions about the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus loom large as more confirmed cases of infections with the strain pop up in the U.S., including in Minnesota, where experts were able to detect it because of the state’s strong variant surveillance system.

The first case was found in California, followed by Minnesota and then Colorado on Thursday. A Hennepin County man tested positive after traveling to New York for a convention November 19. He is vaccinated and experienced mild symptoms, the state’s heath department said. Later Thursday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced cases in the state.

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The public health laboratory at the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed the Omicron case through genome sequencing, which goes a step further and analyzes a test sample to identify variants. Minnesota touts its surveillance system as among the strongest in the nation.

“The reason we found this first is because we do this better,” Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday.

Dr. Matt Binnicker at Mayo Clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology said the prevalence of Omicron is likely more widespread than the few cases confirmed in the U.S. so far.

Scientists are still learning how it interacts with vaccines and if it’s more transmissible than other strains, but some good news is that the infections so far have been mild, he said.

“Over the course of the next two to four weeks, we’ll learn whether the Omicron variant will outcompete Delta or not” Binnicker said. “So it’s basically survival of the fittest for these viruses.”

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The Minnesota Department of Health has tracked several variants since the spring when the most common strain was Alpha. Now nearly all cases are the Delta variant, which experts say is fueling a crisis in Minnesota hospitals where doctors and nurses are struggling to care for those sick with the virus and other conditions.

But plans haven’t changed for Gov. Tim Walz and the state’s response to the pandemic at this stage — he says there will be no new mandates.

“Nothing has changed in our approach to this,” he said. “The way out of this is get vaccinated.”

Public health experts continue to make the same plea to get vaccinated and booster shots in order to blunt Omicron’s impact.

“The more people in the world that we have vaccinated, the less infections will occur and the less chance that new strains of the virus will emerge,” said Binnicker.

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Caroline Cummings