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'There may be a little more panic than what's necessary at this time' | NC infectious disease expert explains reason behind omicron response

President Joe Biden said that it is inevitable that this variant will make it to the United States, so anyone who isn’t vaccinated should do so immediately.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — New travel restrictions from Africa are now in place because of the new COVID-19 variant omicron. The White House is banning foreign travelers coming from South Africa, and seven other surrounding African countries.

RELATED: No, the WHO did not say the omicron variant originated in South Africa — it said South Africa reported it first

According to the World Health Organization, South African officials followed proper protocol when reporting the new strain and they were fast to act, but it has still spread to Europe and Canada.

While health experts say it’ll be about two weeks until there are more definitive answers about this strain, it already appears to be more contagious with more mutations than other variants.

“Omicron really pulled something over on us," Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert with Atrium Health, said.

Ohl said the new variant became so concerning because of how it mutated.

“The way viruses usually change and evolve over time is one or two mutations at a time," Ohl said.

Ohl said he couldn't put a specific number to it, but that the delta variant had around 10 to 12 mutations. He said omicron has over 30.

“I don’t think anyone really would’ve predicted that the SARS-COVID-2 virus could pop so many mutations in one particular strain," Ohl said.

Addressing the nation Monday, President Joe Biden said that it is inevitable that this variant will make it to the United States, so anyone who isn’t vaccinated should do so immediately.

Biden said the travel restrictions were imposed so Americans could prepare.

RELATED: New variant cause for concern, not panic, Biden tells US

“To give us time to get people to get protection, to be vaccinated and get the booster, that’s the reason for it," Biden said.

While scientists believe omicron may be more contagious, Ohl said it's still too early to know how severely it will impact people.

“There may be a little more panic than what's necessary at this time,” Ohl said.

Ohl said very preliminary information does indicate those who are vaccinated may not get the worst of the symptoms.

“The people hospitalized with omicron in South Africa so far seem to be mostly unvaccinated people, which is a little encouraging," Ohl said.

Ohl said he believes vaccinated people should still be able to gather for the holidays, so long as they follow proper COVID-19 precautions and get a booster when eligible.

“When you get boosted, you increase the number and you increase the breadth of the antibodies that you have," Ohl said.

Other key takeaways from the president is that he does not believe there will be a need for a lockdowns, and doesn’t anticipate requiring testing or proof of vaccination for domestic flights. The president said he expects to release their strategy outlining how they plan to fight COVID-19 this winter this Thursday.

When asked if the country's new normal will be that every new concerning strain leads to similar travel restrictions. His answer was no, and that he believes our new normal will be one where more people choose to get vaccinated, preventing the spread of the disease.

Contact Lana Harris at lharris@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and on Instagram.

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