As winter spike in COVID-19 cases begins, health officials prepare for new variant

Following news last week of the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant, called Omicron, officials in New York said on Monday that no cases of the latest strain have been detected yet in New York.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said the health officials are “watching very closely” to see if a strain is found in New York. At least two cases have been detected in Ontario just across the New York border, the governor said.

Dr. Kirsten St. George, the director of virology and chief of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the Wadsworth Center, discussed how the New York Department of Health is monitoring samples taken from across the state to sequence and identify the Omicron variant.

She said the lab has been sequencing patient specimens since the pandemic began in 2020.

“We very recently established a consortium of four labs in New York State to assist with the sequencing so the surveillance of variant strands could be further expanded beyond what we were currently doing,” she said.

She said several steps were taken since last week’s announcement of Omicron, starting with a check of public databases to confirm a case had not yet been reported in the state. Labs performing PCR tests were also put on notice to monitor for samples that may have the characteristic of Omicron, so those can be rapidly tested by sequencing to confirm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week it expects Omicron to be identified quickly if it emerges in the U.S. after scientists in South Africa first discovered it. Viruses are known to change through mutation, which happened to COVID with the Delta variant that proved to me more transmissible and was cited as a cause for a spike in cases earlier this year. The variant names of Delta and Omicron come from the Greek alphabet.

The World Health Organization has said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants or whether it causes more severe disease. Scientists are working to determine how effective current vaccines are against the new variant, the WHO said.

Ms. Hochul said during Monday’s media briefing that “we’re not defenseless” against a new variant compared to a year ago.

“Anyone over age 5 can get vaccinated,” she said. “If you’re vaccinated, you can get the booster shot if you’re over the age of 18. We are recommending highly that people wear masks indoors.”

She said she’s asking businesses to encourage mask wearing among patrons and employees. She pointed to the vaccination rates as the reason more extreme measures like shutdowns are not necessary.

“We are in such a different world,” she said.

Preparations have been underway in advance of an expected winter surge in cases before the new variant was detected, she said.

“We knew this winter spike could happen,” she said. “The spike is occurring.”

On Friday, the governor signed an executive order to declare a state of emergency as a step toward boosting hospital capacity and addressing staffing shortages ahead of the winter spike. That order allows the DOH to limit non-essential procedures at hospitals that currently have limited capacity, defined as 10% staffed bed capacity. The protocols take effect Dec. 3 and will be re-assessed on Jan. 15, although that could be sooner, Ms. Hochul said.

The affected hospitals as of now are in the upstate regions like Finger Lakes, Central NY and the Capital Region. She said between 32-36 hospitals are affected.

She said there’s not yet a capacity issue at Long Island hospitals. Suffolk County hospitals are currently at 28% staffed bed capacity.

Ms. Hochul said 2.4 million doses of the COVID-19 booster have been administered so far. That number includes about 363,000 for Long Island. The eligibility for boosters was recently expanded to anyone 18 or older.

“There’s no reason not to get the booster as long as you’re eligible,” she said. Information on vaccine sites can be found at or 1-833-NYS-4-VAX.

The positivity rate of COVID-19 in Suffolk County surpassed 5% on a seven-day average in the data reported as of Nov. 27. There were 848 new cases reported on Nov. 27. The seven-day average has been steadily climbing since the beginning of November.

More than 81% of the county’s population ages 18 and older are fully vaccinated. Just under 69% of the total population is fully vaccinated.

Ms. Hochul said she planned to introduce the next state health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, on Thursday. Dr. Bassett replaces Dr. Howard Zucker, who quickly fell out of favor once former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned.

Ms. Hochul said she also plans to discuss more about schools on Thursday.

“My goal is to keep kids in schools and keep them there safely though,” she said. “And making sure that we have the opportunity to have people test and return to classrooms easier than is occurring now.”