New York City and state health officials braced for the likely arrival of the new COVID-19 variant known as Omicron over the weekend as cases were detected in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
No cases have been found in the United States as of Friday, Nov. 26, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Governor Kathy Hochul warned in a statement that day that New Yorkers should expect the coming of the highly-mutated strain.
“We’ve taken extraordinary action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and combat this pandemic,” said Hochul in a statement. “However, we continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming.”
The governor declared a state of emergency Friday and signed an executive order allowing the Department of Health to restrict non-essential and non-urgent procedures in hospitals to ensure there is enough capacity, beginning on Dec. 3.
DOH’s Wadsworth Center lab in Albany has been monitoring COVID-19 virus samples from across the Empire State for new variants, according to the governor.
New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is also sequencing about 14% of cases which will help officials detect Omicron, according to the chairperson of the City Council’s health committee.
“NYC health dept is sequencing about 14% of covid cases, so if/when it arrives here we will know quickly,” wrote Manhattan Council Member Mark Levine on Twitter Friday. “Best thing we can do in meantime: ensure every single eligible person in NYC is vax’d/boosted.”
The B.1.1.529 variant has not yet been detected in NYC. (Or the U.S.)
NYC health dept is sequencing about 14% of covid cases, so if/when it arrives here we will know quickly.
Best thing we can do in meantime: ensure *every* single eligible person in NYC is vax’d/boosted.
— Mark D. Levine (@MarkLevineNYC) November 26, 2021
A spokesperson for the city agency said recommended precautions remain the same.
“The Health Department is following the science closely, and is in communication with the CDC,” said Victoria Merlino in an emailed statement. “As of right now, our recommended precautions remain the same — we encourage New Yorkers to get vaccinated and boosted, stay masked in public spaces, and test before and after gathering together, or traveling.”
The new B.1.1.529 variant — which got its more common name Omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet — was first reported in South Africa on Nov. 24 and the World Health Organization classified it as a “variant of concern,” due to its high number of mutations.
The new variant is still being studied and it’s not yet clear whether it’s more transmissible or causes more severe illness than the predominant Delta strain, according to a Sunday update by the WHO. However, preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection.
Cases and hospitalizations have increased in South Africa, but researchers are trying to figure out whether that was tied to the new variant or due to other reasons.
Several countries, including the United States as of Monday, have rolled out travel restrictions from southern African countries in response.
COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in New York in recent weeks, still driven by Delta, especially in Western New York where the state registered a 10.15% positivity rate on Friday.
Officials in Erie County, which includes Buffalo, re-instituted mask mandates for all indoor public spaces on Nov. 23.
New York City still has the lowest rate in the whole state at 1.69%, according to the state, but city data shows higher percentages in some parts of the Five Boroughs, particularly on Staten Island, and areas of Queens and southern Brooklyn.
The full vaccination rate for all New Yorkers was 68.2% as of Friday, with 77.5% of state residents getting at least one dose, and 90.3% of adults getting at least one shot.