NEBRASKA — The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States was announced on Wednesday. Just two days later, and six cases are verified here in the Public Health Solutions health department in rural southeast Nebraska. But local health officials are stressing it’s not time to panic.

“We don’t want to have anyone get too scared about this," PHS Medical Director Dr. Josue Gutierrez said. "We still don’t know a lot about this virus and every time something new comes on, a lot of things can be put out in the media scaring people at times. This is not one of those cases.”

Officials didn’t give any info about the people’s age or specific location, hoping to protect their identities in the sparsely populated district, which includes Fillmore, Gage, Jefferson, Saline and Thayer counties.

They did say one unvaccinated person returned from Nigeria on November 23rd and started showing symptoms the next day. The other five cases were likely infected through close household contact. Health Director Kim Showalter praised the traveler for calling the health department, allowing them to get a sample sequenced.

“Not every case in Nebraska is sequenced for every variant, so that’s why it’s important to know if we’re looking at a cluster outbreak or we’re looking at some special circumstances so we can get those sequenced right away,” Showalter said.

Showalter says the six people are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms and are in the recovery stages. 

There’s not much alarm locally, but the World Health Organization has Omicron listed as a variant of concern and experts are still collecting data to see if its more infectious than other COVID-19 strains. Medical Director Josue Gutierrez says research is in the early stages.

“We are still unsure how this virus will affect individuals with chronic diseases, younger individuals, older individuals - all of that is still being studied," Gutierrez said. "There’s a team of international scientists working together to get all of this data together.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement after the Omicron cases were announced, reiterating the state’s position against mask and vaccine mandates.

Showalter doesn’t expect many close contacts to the six existing cases. If the health department hasn’t already called you directly, she says you weren’t exposed.

“We may be one of the first in the United States with Omicron, but we’re certainly not going to be the last," Showalter said.
It’s just like Delta, we saw it creep its way in and then it made it’s way throughout the entire United States. We know it will be this way with this variant as well.”

While Showalter and Gutierrez are urging people to keep calm about the new variant, they say it’s not time to let up on the health safety practices they’ve been preaching throughout the pandemic. They say vaccination remains the best defense against COVID-19.