Thu Nguyen swabs Johnny Williams for COVID-19 at an Unidos En Salud (United in Health) low barrier test site located at 24th Mission Bart Station targeting San Francisco's hardest hit Latino community on March 2, 2021.

A confirmed case of the Covid-19 omicron variant was detected Monday in San Francisco in an individual who returned from South Africa last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this morning.

At a press conference at City Hall shortly before noon, San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip said the individual was aware of the omicron variant’s identification in South Africa, sought testing for their mild illness, and did not require hospitalization.

Mayor London Breed and Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, also addressed the variant’s arrival this morning. They stressed the importance of continued testing, vaccination, and booster shots.

“Our message is the same as it was yesterday,” said Colfax, adding that he did not anticipate any changes in  guidance at this time.

Dr. Joe DeRisi, a biochemist and the co-president of  the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub, which sequences samples from across the state, including the local Unidos en Salud testing site at 24th and Capp streets, told Mission Local last night that no omicron variants had been detected in the Mission yet. 

But even though it’s been “delta, delta, delta,” so far, he said, it is only a matter of time before omicron circulates.

Still, he said, there is no reason for panic. Until more is known about the virus, he offered recommendations mirroring those from Colfax and the mayor: Get vaccinated, get boosted, and wear a mask, as appropriate.

Go to family gatherings, he added, and consider having rapid antigen testing cards on hand to ensure the virus isn’t circulating. “Things like that can go a really long way to keeping you and your family safe in a very rational, prudent way without being overbearing,” he said.

Representatives of Unidos en Salud community partner organizations attended a press conference at the testing site on Nov. 22, including, from left: UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, Dr. Joe DeRisi of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, Dr. Diane Havlir, the research lead from UCSF, and Salu Ribeiro, co-founder and CEO of Bay PLS. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

Many experts have weighed in on what the omicron variant means for the next stage of the pandemic, particularly as the holiday season brings increased travel, gatherings and colder weather driving people indoors.

“All those are wide-open scientific questions that have to be answered in the lab,” said DeRisi, “and that work takes time.” He described how his and “dozens and dozens” of laboratories around the world are trying to build an inactive form of the omicron virus and test it against serum from vaccinated people, like they did with delta.

“My prediction is that, in the next two weeks, we’ll see scientific results coming out from many labs,” he said. 

It’s entirely likely, based on the experience with delta, that “the vaccine will still be efficacious, but at somewhat reduced levels.”

Among the outstanding questions, he said, is how it reacts in boosted populations. 

All of this will be studied in the weeks to come. In the meantime, Colfax exhibited similar restraint at today’s press conference and spent little time discussing omicron’s unknowns. He said he didn’t want the focus to be on counting omicron cases and encouraged San Franciscans to continue adhering to current covid guidance. 

“We know how to do this, San Francisco,” said Colfax, specifying that meant get vaccinated, get your booster, and wear your mask. “It’s been a long [time], almost 24 months now. Please have a great holiday season with your family.”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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