The omicron variant of COVID-19 has been discovered in Utah

The person who tested positive is an older adult from southwest Utah who recently returned home from South Africa, officials said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign encourages people to continue wearing masks on the University of Utah campus. A resident from southwest Utah has tested positive for the omicron variant of the coronavirus, state health officials announced Friday, urging Utahns to get vaccinated, wear masks in crowded indoor settings, and get tested quickly after symptoms appear.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has arrived in Utah.

The Utah Department of Health announced Friday that it confirmed the first case of the new COVID-19 variant — using ongoing genetic sequencing of positive COVID-19 samples at the Utah Public Health Laboratory.

The person who tested positive was an older adult living within the Southwest Utah Public Health District — which covers Washington, Beaver, Garfield, Iron and Kane counties. This person had recently returned home to Utah from traveling to South Africa, UDOH reported.

The department gave little information about the person, to protect the patient’s privacy.

The person is fully vaccinated, UDOH reported, and has received monoclonal antibody treatment. The person is recovering at home, having experienced only mild symptoms.

Performing the genetic sequencing to detect a variant usually can take between eight and 10 days, said Dr. Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics at the Utah Public Health Laboratory, which sequences between 3,000 and 4,500 samples a week.

In this case, though, because health officials knew the person had recently arrived from South Africa — where the omicron variant was first identified a week earlier — the sequencing was fast-tracked, Oakeson said Friday afternoon in a virtual news conference.

The lab skipped the usual step of confirming the sample was positive for COVID-19, which cut at least a day off the usual processing time, Oakeson said. Also, he said, “we pulled staff in, late into the night.”

Dr. Leisha Nolen, the state’s epidemiologist, said in the same news conference that UDOH’s contact tracing team have spoken to the person and their family members — none of whom, so far, has tested positive for COVID-19, Nolen said.

The person was picked up at an airport — Nolen did not say which one — by family members, and they had little or no contact with anyone else on the drive home, she said.

Nolen said the person and their contacts have been cooperating with UDOH, even giving more samples for testing when asked. They are following all guidance for isolation and quarantine, she said.

Doctors still don’t know much about the omicron variant — including whether it is more transmissible than the delta variant, or is more likely to cause hospitalizations or death, or how well the current vaccines work against it.

“Until we understand this variant more, it’s reasonable to be cautious,” Nolen said. “Go get that vaccine to protect yourself. And people who haven’t gotten their boosters, this is a good time to do that as well. Also, wearing a mask is something that really is a reasonable choice to do right now.”

Even without the omicron variant, Nolen said, “it’s wintertime and it’s holiday time — so many people coming around, so much travel, so much exposure. It’s a time that we really need to be cautious. On top of that, our hospitals have already been stressed for three months. We need to keep this under control, and the best way to do that is: Vaccine, masking, and trying to stay away from large crowds.”

One leading Utah doctor had predicted earlier Friday that the omicron variant would land in Utah soon. Dr. Andrew Pavia, director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, noted Friday morning that 10 cases of the omicron variant had been found already in the United States, in New York, Minnesota, California and Colorado.

Since it takes days for experts to detect a new variant in a given population, Pavia said Friday morning, “I think it’s in Utah — and if it isn’t, it will be soon.”

By Friday afternoon, The New York Times had listed 10 states, including Utah, where the omicron variant had been found.

The variant was first found last week by doctors in South Africa, where it has spread quickly. Since then, cases have been found across Europe, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, according to the Times.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending that international travelers who are unvaccinated stay home and away from others for seven days after their trip — and all travelers should get tested three to five days after returning home.