NEW YORK – Multiple cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in New York, health officials said Thursday, including a man who attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November and tested positive for the variant when he returned home to Minnesota.
In addition to the conventioneer, health officials said tests showed five other people recently infected with COVID-19 had the variant. They included a person in the city’s Long Island suburbs who had recently traveled to South Africa, residents of Brooklyn and Queens and another case possibly linked to travel.
“No cause for alarm. We just want to make sure that the public is aware of information when we receive it,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the geographic spread of the positive tests suggested the variant was undergoing “community spread” in the city, and wasn’t linked to any one event.
The news came a day after the U.S. announced its first case of the variant had been detected in California, in a person who had recently traveled to South Africa.
Officials reported another case Thursday in a Colorado woman who had recently traveled to southern Africa.
The Anime NYC 2021 convention Nov. 19-21 drew about 50,000 people, according to event organizers, and attendees were required to wear masks and show proof of having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Officials in New York said they were working to trace attendees of the convention, which was held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center as New York City prepared to host the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and braced for throngs of tourists to return after the U.S. opened up to vaccinated international travelers.
Officials in the city of 8.8 million said they expected it would be only a matter of time before the new variant was reported in the city. City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi urged people who attended the event to get tested.
“We should assume there is community spread of the variant in our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
The Minnesota man began experiencing mild symptoms Nov. 22. He had been vaccinated and received a booster shot in early November, according to health officials in his home state. He sought COVID-19 testing Nov. 24, and his symptoms have subsided, officials said.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the man had not traveled outside the U.S. recently.
“Just given the timing … it seems quite possible, perhaps the most likely, that this transmission happened at the arena convention in New York City but that’s not definitive,” Malcolm said.
Nov. 22 was the same day the person infected in the California case returned to the U.S. from South Africa. The California traveler, who was vaccinated, developed mild symptoms and tested positive Monday.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
Omicron is classified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” as scientists work to determine how it may compare with the predominant delta variant in terms of transmissibility and severity. Scientists also are studying the degree to which existing vaccines and therapies protect against omicron.
Scientists in South Africa first reported it, but the samples came from several countries in southern Africa. And health officials in the Netherlands now say it was found there prior to the South Africa detection.
As comfort over air travel returns, it’s inevitable that new variants like omicron will spread from country to country and state to state, said professor Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.
“We shouldn’t panic, but we should be concerned,” she said.
Hochul said the case involving the Minnesota visitor underlined the need for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or receive a booster shot if they have not already.
“There is one way to address this — New Yorkers, get vaccinated, get boosted, and get ready,” the Democrat said.
Japan’s consul general in New York, Kanji Yamanouchi, delivered the opening remarks at the convention.
A spokesperson for the consulate said Yamanouchi was vaccinated and received a booster shot about three weeks ago. He said staffers at the consulate underwent testing as a precaution.
“He had absolutely no problem in his health condition,” said the consulate’s spokesperson, Kenju Murakami, noting Thursday it had been nearly two weeks.
A website for the convention says that Anime NYC is mounted by Leftfield Media, an event company based in Shelton, Connecticut. A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Peter Tatara, its founder and event director, referred questions to company spokespeople. He said he had been tested “multiple times” since the event.
New York City Council Ben Kallos, who appeared at the event with the Japanese ambassador, said a rapid antigen test taken Thursday showed he was negative for the virus.
“I can attest to the fact that my vaccine was checked and I got a wristband, and the person who tested positive for omicron was also fully vaccinated,” Kallos said, urging his “fellow anime fans” to get tested. “So it goes to show you, even when you follow all the precautions, we’re still seeing breakthrough cases.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Marina Villeneuve in Albany, New York; Doug Glass in Minneapolis; Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota; and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee.
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