What to Know
- Governors in the tri-state region confirmed eight cases of the omicron variant as of Saturday morning — eight in New York and one in New Jersey
- At this point, there is no U.S. data to suggest that the variant first identified in South Africa is more lethal or a higher reinfection risk than earlier strains, but experts say it does appear to be more transmissible
- A pre-print, non-peer-reviewed study by a team of South African researchers suggests omicron appears to have a "substantial ability" to evade natural immunity acquired from past COVID-19 infections
Three new cases of the omicron variant have been detected in New York City, bringing the number of cases in the Big Apple to seven on top of the previously confirmed case out on Long Island.
The three additional cases announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Saturday morning join New Jersey's first case confirmed one day prior, bringing the tri-state's total to nine. As of Saturday, Connecticut has not announced any confirmed cases of the new variant.
Hochul's weekend announcement said the newest batch of confirmed cases "appear unrelated," but additional details about the vaccination status of those individuals and recently travel activity were not provided.
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"The Omicron variant is here, and as anticipated we are seeing the beginning of community spread. We continue to work closely with our partners at the national, state, and local levels. At this time, we do not know how quickly Omicron will spread or how severe the symptoms of Omicron will be," the state's health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said.
New Jersey health officials confirmed the state's first case of the omicron variant late Friday in a fully vaccinated traveler, Gov. Phil Murphy announced.
The Garden State appeared to be the tenth in the country to detect the new variant, and it came on the heels of the tri-state's first five cases discovered in New York City and Long Island. Tri-state governors have all said it was only a matter of time before the new strain of the virus was detected in their states.
The traveler, Murphy said, is a fully vaccinated woman from Georgia who recently traveled to South Africa. Officials from her home state said she returned to Georgia for two days before heading up north to New Jersey where she ultimately tested positive for omicron. Contact tracing is underway in each state while she isolates after testing positive on Nov. 28.
“We are still learning about the Omicron variant, but we have tools to stop the spread of the virus, most important among them is to get vaccinated and get a booster dose. The public should continue to mask up, get tested if they have symptoms, physically distance, avoid crowded events, stay home when sick and wash hands frequently," the state's health commissioner, Judy Persichilli, said.
The first cases of that newest variant, which was first identified in South Africa late last month, were confirmed by Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday in a joint announcement made only hours after news broke that a vaccinated Minnesota man who attended the two-day Anime NYC convention at the Javits Center a few weeks ago got COVID and testing showed it was omicron.
Health officials are still working to learn more about the first five cases, but they include a 67-year-old woman on Long Island who had recently traveled to South Africa, residents of Brooklyn and Queens and another New York City case possibly linked to travel. At least one person had received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine but officials did not have details about the vaccination statuses of the four other cases.
There most certainly are more local omicron cases that have yet to be detected. New York state only sequences about 3.5% of all positive COVID samples to isolate variants. The renowned Wadsworth Center Laboratory has the capacity to test up to 100 samples a day and multiple other labs, including ones in the city, are scaling up genetic sequencing efforts as well. But with New York's daily cases topping 11,000 a day ago for the first time since late January, the sequencing sample is quite small.
Hochul and other officials are urging the public not to overreact to this latest variant and the governor says she won't create a "panic" by shutting down schools or the economy again. We simply don't have enough information about omicron's potential threats or lack thereof, the Democrat said, but reassured New Yorkers she has prepared for every scenario and will respond appropriately to emerging data.
"We're not having shutdowns, we're not changing our protocols. We are continuing where we are, but making sure that we work in concert together and encourage people to get tested, get tested often, get the vaccination and that, again is our best defense," Hochul said in her briefing alongside the mayor on Thursday.
The federal government has shared similar sentiments in the last few days, and New York is working closely with the CDC as it monitors omicron's spread. De Blasio has said people should assume community transmission is well underway.
He and Hochul, along with the new state health boss, urge continued masking and enhanced safety protocol for all people regardless of vaccination status, as well as vaccination and boosters for anyone who isn't yet fully protected against COVID-19.
So far, preliminary evidence suggests omicron is at the very least more transmissible than earlier strains, though it's not clear if it's more transmissible than delta. There is no U.S. data yet to indicate it causes more severe illness and death or poses a higher risk of breakthrough cases, though the World Health Organization has said it believes omicron does come with an increased risk of reinfection.
A pre-print, non-peer-reviewed study by a team of South African researchers suggests omicron appears to have a "substantial ability" to evade natural immunity acquired from past COVID-19 infections, though it acknowledged acquired from vaccination is still an open question as far as the new variant is concerned.
For more information on the latest omicron cases in New York, click here.
The emergence of omicron comes at a time that COVID hospitalizations, new deaths and new cases are rising markedly in New York and at the national level. On Thursday, Hochul reported more than 11,000 new COVID cases in New York, the highest single-day total since late January, and a hospitalization total of 3,093.
That hospitalization number is up 62% in the last month alone, and daily deaths, 49 of which were reported Thursday, are at their highest levels in roughly half a year.
Experts say the delta variant, which still accounts for 98% of all tested positive cases in New York City, is likely largely to blame for the latest spikes.
Starting Friday, any New York hospitals with bed capacity above 90% could have to shut down elective surgeries should Hochul's administration say that is needed. The plan is part of the state of emergency Hochul issued ahead of omicron's arrival to shore up resources and expedite federal aid should the COVID outlook worsen.
Hochul has said she is leaving all options on the table as far as next steps and warned last month that a continued uptick in COVID-19 rates could mean New Yorkers will again face more virus protocols in high-risk communities. But she also said she didn't think a mask mandate would do much due to noncompliance.
"That is an option, but there is a reality: The people who won't get vaccinated are probably the same people who won't wear a mask as well," Hochul said.
New York City issued an updated mask advisory this week recommending that everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear face coverings indoors.