By Kate Raddatz

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, and is now detected in 54 countries.

Local transmission continues to grow in places like Germany, France, Spain and Britain.

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Eighteen cases are now reported in the United States, with Mississippi the latest to find the variant. The person in that case had recently traveled to New York.

Scientists are racing to learn more about this new strain of the virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he’s encouraged by early information coming out.

“Thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it, but we really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it’s less severe,” Fauci said on CNN.

Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease expert Kris Ehresmann says symptoms reported with early Omicron infections included fatigue, headaches, body aches and loss of taste or smell. But she and other experts agree it’s too soon to make a determination on Omicron’s severity.

Ehresmann says one caveat is who Omicron first infected.

(credit: CBS)

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“The initial folks who have become ill have not necessarily been representative of the whole population in South Africa. It is university students who tend to be healthier than, you know the general population,” Ehresmann said.

There are early indications that Omicron may be more contagious than Delta, says Dr. George Morris, CentraCare’s COVID-19 incident commander.

“If it mutates in a point where it may be more contagious but less severe, then it becomes a common cold, and that’s what I think we’d like to see and what we hope for, but however right now, we don’t know enough,” Morris said.

He says it took several years for the 1918 flu pandemic virus to fade into the background.

One of the big questions is how will the current vaccines hold up against Omicron? State health officials said Minnesota’s first confirmed case may have had mild symptoms because he was vaccinated and boosted. But more research is needed.

“We can’t only depend on vaccines. We have to think about masking, we have to think about our behaviors, we have to think about social distancing and travel,” Morris said.

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Experts say the Delta variant is still the dominant strain in Minnesota and across the country. Every county in Minnesota is currently seeing high infection numbers. Experts continue to encourage people to get vaccinated or boosted.

Kate Raddatz