First case of omicron identified in Michigan in Kent County

The first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was detected Thursday in a fully vaccinated Kent County resident more than a week after it was first reported in the United States on Dec. 1. 

The west Michigan patient tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 3, and genomic sequencing confirmed it was the highly contagious omicron variant and was reported to the state on Thursday, according to a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services statement. Vaccine records indicate the Kent County adult was fully vaccinated but had not received a booster dose, according to the state health department's release.

Michigan became at least the 22nd state to report the variant. Omicron was named and designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26, about two weeks after it was first detected in Botswana and South Africa.

"We are concerned, although not surprised, about the discovery of the omicron variant in Michigan," Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement.

"We continue to urge Michiganders ages 5 and up to get vaccinated and continue participating in measures we know slow the spread of the virus by wearing well-fitting masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and testing for COVID-19. Vaccines are our best defense against the virus and how we can manage the spread of COVID-19."  

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said Thursday she was concerned but not surprised that the first case of COVID-19 with omicron variant has been discovered in Michigan.

Hertel is scheduled to hold Friday morning press conference to discuss the new variant, according to a media advisory.

The detection of the new variant in Michigan came as the state is grappling with a spike in COVID-19 cases that's testing the capacity of hospitals. On Wednesday, the state health department reported 4,419 adults were hospitalized with confirmed virus infections, the highest number of the pandemic so far.

The surge in delta variant cases is still the most overwhelming factor that Michigan is facing, said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and the former health director for the city of Detroit.

The precautions people should take to fight the delta variant are the same they should use for omicron, he said, including getting three doses of vaccine and wearing a mask indoors.

"However we feel about COVID — and trust me I feel very done with COVID — COVID is not done with us," El-Sayed said.

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian noted unvaccinated residents are "disproportionately affected by this virus" and the side effects of "COVID-19 are much worse than receiving a vaccine."

The state health department is coordinating with the Kent County Health Department on investigating the west Michigan omicron case. They are going to assess the potential for out-of-state exposure, compliance with isolation guidance and outreach to close contacts, according to the state health department.

“The identification of the omicron variant is not unexpected,” said Dr. Adam London, Kent County Health Department director. “... We continue to urge people to get their vaccine and to get their boosters as soon as they are eligible.”  

About 62% of Michigan's population has received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, according to the state's vaccination tracker website. About 1.6 million boosters have been administered, the majority in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

Pfizer said Wednesday a booster of its COVID-19 vaccine may offer important protection against the new omicron variant even though the initial two doses appear significantly less effective.

Although two doses may not be strong enough to prevent infection, lab tests showed a booster increased by 25-fold people's levels of antibodies capable of fighting off omicron, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said. For people who haven't yet had a booster, the companies said two doses still should prevent severe disease or death.

Pronounced, "OH-mee-kraan," it's named after a letter in the Greek alphabet and carries more than 50 mutations not seen in any combination before.

The variant likely spreads more easily than the original coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but evidence has not emerged that it causes more severe illness or increases risk of hospitalization in infected people.