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Minnesota's top health official is urging Minnesotans to get vaccinated and receive the COVID-19 booster shot as soon as eligible amid the latest variant of concern, though she is also pumping the brakes on jumping to any conclusions.

The omicron variant, which was first uncovered in South Africa and has prompted international travel restrictions as it has spread to numerous countries, though has not yet been identified in the United States. 

"At this point no omicron cases have been reported in Minnesota or the United States," said Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. "Fortunately, Minnesota has built one of the nation’s strongest genomic sequencing and variant surveillance systems. If an omicron variant infection is found in Minnesota, we will share that information as soon as possible."

Echoing what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said, Malcolm noted that new variants are expected, and are a major reason why everyone aged 5 and up should get vaccinated, while those who are eligible get their booster dose. 

According to the CDC, a variant of concern shows "evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures." 

So far, as the World Health Organization announced Sunday, it is still unknown if the omicron variant more easily spreads from person to person, nor is it known if it causes more severe disease than the delta variant. 

President Joe Biden on Monday said omicron is a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic." Biden also indicated that the federal response to fighting COVID-19 this winter will not include shutdowns or lockdowns, but with "more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more." 

"If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there's no need for lockdown," Biden said.

Minnesota is currently dominated by the delta variant, with the latest surge producing thousands of cases and dozens of deaths every day. The health department has so far tallied 528 deaths from COVID-19 Nov. 1-24, marking the second consecutive month with at least 500 deaths. There were 564 deaths from the disease in Minnesota in October. 

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