Concerns grow over new COVID variant as U.S. airports shut down travel


NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — The U.S. is shutting down travel from South Africa and several other countries starting Monday over concerns about a new COVID-19 variant.

So far, the variant has not been detected in the U.S. but has been detected in Canada.

State health officials say they’re monitoring this variant, but given Connecticut’s proximity to New York, there’s concern it could already be here.

Omicron — a new COVID-19 variant that U.S. health officials are calling potentially more contagious than previous strains — showed up in multiple European countries Saturday. The cases involved people who traveled from South Africa where the variant was identified a few days ago.

“I’m not too concerned about contracting it,” Victoria Dube of New Britain said. “I’m more concerned with the travel restrictions that could happen because of it. I’m not looking forward to that.”

Fears of getting her grandma sick kept Dube away from home last year. This year, Grandma Dorothy is fully vaccinated, so Dube left school in Nebraska to spend Thanksgiving in New Britain.

But now there’s yet another COVID variant in the mix.

Travelers took to the air Monday at Bradley International Airport at the same time the U.S. restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region/

About 100 cases have been detected in countries outside the U.S. Labs in Connecticut can test for the variant, but Hartford Healthcare officials said itt could take several weeks before officials truly understand its nature and vaccine efficacy.

They say the delta variant is a bigger issue.

“We should be worried about that variant because that is the one that is present,” Dr. Ulysses Wu from Hartford HealthCare said.

Over the past several weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations across Hartford HealthCare shot up from more than 70 to 137. Doctors say the omicron variant could be more transmissible, but they think it will run a mild course on people who are vaccinated and boosted.

“The best way to fight this is exactly what we’re doing right now, which is vaccines and boosters,” Wu. said.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health is monitoring the new COVID-19 variant, conducting tests to get a better understanding of the variants that may be circulating in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont wrote in a statement.

“Our advance planning in this area will help us track omicron, in addition to other variants that could appear in the future,” Lamont said.

White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said he wouldn’t be surprised if the omicron variant is already here in the U.S.

“When you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go, essentially all over,” Fauci said in a statement.

That’s also the belief of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu from New Haven’s Yale School of Medicine.

“Probably in the next few days, we’re going to hear that there’s a case here,” Ogbuagu, an associate professor of infectious disease, told WTNH.

He explained how that seems to be the case in South Africa with omicron, which also has more than 30 mutations that could spark infection. Less than a quarter of South Africa’s population is vaccinated, and only time will tell how the variant plays out, Ogbuagu said.

“This will take time,” Ogbuagu told WTNH. “I mean, figuring out if this variant causes more severe disease, you don’t learn that immediately.”

Omicron is the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet and travelers at Bradley feel the same way about it and the 14 variants that came before it.

Some countries are choosing to take more drastic measures. Israel, for instance, is closing its borders for two weeks.

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