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'No need for alarm' but NC health leaders watching omicron variant closely, Cohen says

The U.S. hasn't confirmed any cases of the omicron variant but health officials are closely watching it after Thanksgiving.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said health officials in the state are monitoring the omicron variant as concerns are raised across the U.S. and Carolinas following Thanksgiving weekend. 

Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke at 3 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the state's COVID-19 trends and other data. Cooper started by saying the state was fortunate to see a "more normal" Thanksgiving compared to 2020. 

"We're fortunate that this year's Thanksgiving looked different than last year's thanks to remarkable COVID-19 vaccines," Cooper said. "Thanks to the millions of North Carolinians who got the vaccine, families and friends were able to gather more safely this year." 

Cooper also encouraged everyone to get their booster shot, particularly people who received their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago, or two months for Johnson & Johnson recipients.

"If you haven't gotten vaccinated yet, speak to your doctor today," Cohen said. "Don't wait to vaccinate."

Cohen also discussed her decision to step down as secretary of NCDHHS. She will be replaced by current Chief Deputy Secretary Kody Kinsley, a Wilmington native. 

"It's been a wonderful five years," Cohen said. "I am so honored that I had this opportunity to lead this state, I think we've accomplished so much beyond COVID. A bit of rest and recovery is in store for me as I think about my next opportunity."

The briefing came as U.S. health officials are closely watching the new omicron variant of COVID-19 that was first reported in South Africa. The U.S. has put a travel ban in place for the country that prevents most people from entering the U.S. 

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Dr. Anthony Fauci said there are no confirmed cases of omicron in the U.S. right now and other experts say it's too soon to tell if current vaccines are effective against the new variant, or how severely it impacts those who are infected. 

"All viruses change over time and COVID-19 is no different," Cohen said. "We still have a lot to learn about omicron. Over the next few weeks, scientists will be looking for answers to several questions."

Cohen said there's "no reason for alarm," but many health experts believe the omicron variant is already in North Carolina despite no confirmed cases at this time. 

Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert with Atrium Health, said the new variant is so concerning because of how it mutated. 

“The way viruses usually change and evolve over time is one or two mutations at a time," Ohl said.

Ohl said he couldn't put a specific number to it, but that the delta variant had around 10 to 12 mutations. He said omicron has over 30.

Ohl said very preliminary information does indicate those who are vaccinated may not get the worst of the symptoms.

“The people hospitalized with omicron in South Africa so far seem to be mostly unvaccinated people, which is a little encouraging," Ohl said.

Meanwhile, North Carolina's COVID-19 trends are again moving in the wrong direction. The state's two-week average for positive tests is 8.3%, the highest in all of November. It's still too early to know if there will be a surge in new cases from Thanksgiving gatherings. 

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