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Do different strains of COVID-19 have different symptoms?

The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant was identified in California on Wednesday. The person who tested positive had just returned from South Africa.

NORFOLK, Va. — Now that the Omicron COVID-19 variant has made its way to the U.S., health officials say it’s not time to panic and scientists will have more information in the coming days and weeks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said it was just a matter of time before the variant showed up in the U.S., and now, it has in California.

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"There’s been no evidence yet that this variant is more dangerous than other variants that we’ve seen, so, it’s not a time to panic, but it is a time to prepare," said Dr. Rebekah Sensenig, an Infectious Disease Specialist with Riverside Health System.

But for now, is there a way to tell the difference between the initial strain of COVID-19, the Delta variant and the Omicron variant besides testing?

Sensenig says the short answer is no. 

"Symptoms of Omicron, from what we know so far, which is again very limited, they seem to be very similar to the Delta, Alpha, all the different variants that we’ve seen."

However, she says right now, there is one exception.

"The exceptions that we’ve heard from some of the physicians in South Africa are that the Omicron variant is not causing loss of taste or smell as frequently, but the other symptoms, cough, myalgias, the other typical COVID symptoms, they are still seeing."

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Sensenig says the only surefire way to tell the difference between the strains is through testing.

"We have to be able to genetically sequence the variant to see what mutations they have and that tells us which variant it is."

Most of the new cases in South Africa have been among people in their 20s and 30s and doctors note that age group generally has milder symptoms of COVID-19 in any case. They warn that older people infected by the new variant could have more severe symptoms.

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She says the good news is, so far, the majority of cases coming out of South Africa have been mild.

She says as the days and weeks go on, we still need to be using the mitigation strategies that we know work-- wearing a mask, wash your hands, social distance and get vaccinated.

She says as of now, the vaccines appear to work against the new variant and that’s still our best form of protection against hospitalization and death from the virus.