WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt lives in every corner of the globe, the emergence of new variants doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said Dec. 19 that the variant is "just raging around the world."
U.S. health officials announced Dec. 19 that omicron accounted for an estimated 73% of new infections last week.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak to the nation Tuesday to announce new steps the administration is taking amid the rising cases.
Here are five things we know about the new omicron variant:
1. What is it?
Omicron is the latest variant of COVID-19 since the novel coronavirus was first identified in China two years ago.
It's unclear where the new variant first emerged, but scientists in South Africa first alerted the WHO following a rise in COVID-19 cases that showed signs of rapid transmission.
The WHO designated it in November as a "variant of concern," naming it "omicron" after a letter in the Greek alphabet.
2. Where is it?
This new strain has now been seen in travelers arriving in several countries around the world, including the U.S., multiple European countries and Canada.
The CDC announced Dec. 1 that a person, who was fully vaccinated, tested positive for omicron in California. That person arrived in the U.S. from South Africa on Nov. 22.
Since that first confirmed case, omicron has spread rapidly in the U.S. and has now been detected in almost ever U.S. state, according to the CDC's online tracker.
The first confirmed case of omicron in Florida was announced by health officials on Dec. 7 in Tampa and St. Lucie County.
The U.S. on Nov. 29 banned travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus.
Israel and Japan are among the countries that have banned foreigners regardless of vaccination status.
As of Dec. 20, the travel website Kayak listed 51 countries that will only allow citizens, residents returning home or people in other special circumstances to enter.
3. Is it more transmissible, more deadly?
The omicron variant likely will spread more easily than the original strain of the coronavirus, according to the CDC. How easily omicron spreads compared to Delta remains unknown. The CDC expects that anyone with omicron can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don't have symptoms.
CNN reports that that genomic scientists said the new variant has an "unusually high" number of mutations that cause the virus to have more of the key spike proteins it uses to get into the healthy cells it attacks.
Experts said that more data is still needed to know if omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.
Omicron cases have exploded in Europe, causing the Netherlands to impose strict lockdown measures Dec. 19.
4. Will the current vaccines work?
Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths from omicron. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur. With other variants, like delta, the CDC said vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death.
Moderna announced Dec. 20 that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against omicron.
Pfizer said they would be able to develop and produce a "tailor-made vaccine" to fight omicron in about 100 days.
Based on the changed genetic make-up of omicron, some treatments are likely to remain effective while others may be less effective, according to the CDC.
"In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool," President Joe Biden said in late November.
5. Can we expect more lockdowns and measures put in place to stop the spread?
Besides flight restrictions to eight African countries, there have been no announcements about lockdowns or other impediments to travel in the U.S.
Biden has urged Americans to get vaccinated, including getting booster shots, as he seeks to reduce concerns about the new variant.
"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said.
The president said he won't immediately push for more restrictions to stop the spread of omicron but urged people to continue to wear masks while indoors.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has reiterated that Florida will continue to be free of lockdowns and will not impose any business closures similar to the ones that occurred in 2020.
Click here for a list of COVID-19 testing sites in Florida.
Here is a link to testing sites available in Palm Beach County.