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New coronavirus variant, omicron, has the attention of Michigan health department officials

Image for story on coronavirus transmission.

State health officials in Michigan said they are following the international data closely about a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa.

Officials have named it omicron. A World Health Organization panel has classified it as a variant of concern. The potential risks of omicron are not yet known.

Its discovery in South Africa sent a chill through much of the world, as some nations raced to halt air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings.

The Biden administration plans to ban travel from South Africa, seven other African nations by non-U.S. citizens beginning Monday due to COVID-19 variant. Canada is also banning entry of foreign nationals who have traveled through southern Africa after discovery of new COVID variant.

The 27-nation European Union and some other countries quickly suspended air travel from South Africa and stepped up other precautions. The moves have renewed a debate over whether these travel restrictions work to prevent the spread of new variants.

The new emerging variant comes as Michigan is experiencing a fourth surge in COVID cases, driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says the new variant underscores the importance of Michiganders practicing COVID mitigation factors, including vaccination, mask wearing and social distancing.

“With colder weather setting in and the holiday season beginning, people are gathering more often for activities and events in indoor spaces,” said MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton. “We know the virus is more easily transmitted indoors where ventilation is not as robust.”

Since March 2020, Michigan has recorded more than 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 23,595 deaths.