New state health commissioner urges residents to follow precautions as experts learn more about omicron variant

New York’s new state health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said early reports on the omicron variant of COVID-19 suggest it is highly contagious, but also results in milder illness — a positive sign as the world awaits more information on the latest pandemic development.

Dr. Bassett, speaking at a media briefing Thursday alongside Gov. Kathy Hochul, reiterated that it’s been just a week since the variant was first discovered and information remains preliminary.

“What we keep saying, the advice to get vaccinated, to wear your mask, remains the best advice that we can give the general public,” said Dr. Bassett, who officially began the new role Wednesday.

While no cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed yet among New York residents, Dr. Bassett said it’s only a matter of time. Earlier Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed a resident who had traveled to New York City tested positive for omicron. That resident suffered mild symptoms that have already been resolved.

“It’s good new that this individual from Minnesota is only mildly ill and has seemed to recover,” she said. “The news that comes in continues to suggest that it is not more lethal than other variants we’ve seen. But we all are waiting to learn more.”

The Minnesota resident was vaccinated and attended the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center from Nov. 19-21, officials said. The governor said health officials have a list of those who attended the conference and those people are encouraged to get tested. Vaccination was a requirement to attend that convention. The male with omicron developed symptoms on Nov. 22 and tested positive for COVID-19 two days later.

“We’re not defenseless against this variant,” Mr. Hochul said. “It is the fourth variant that has arrived and there is much more information that is still to be learned as we wait the continued research from the CDC and others.”

The delta variant was the driving force behind a surge in cases earlier this year.

Ms. Hochul continued to encourage “the last holdouts” to get vaccinated, saying with the supply and distribution all in order, it’s simply a “conscious decision” people are making to not get vaccinated. She said the state has sent out more than 600,000 text messages to residents who received one dose but have not followed up with the required second dose. The second dose is required for full effectiveness for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

There have been about 2.5 million booster shots administered so far — the third dose that residents can receive six months after a second dose. About 37% of residents 65 and older have received the booster shot. The figure is about 16% for those 18 and older. Eligibility was recently expanded for anyone 18 or older to receive the booster.

The governor announced a “Boost Up, New York!” campaign that will feature banners, posters and more to encourage residents to receive the third dose as the holiday season arrives.

On schools, she said the state is working to provide more testing options. She said the state has ordered another 1 million antigen tests that can be distributed to schools.

“Over-the-counter antigen rapid tests will be issued, they’ll be allowed for schools to use, to be accepted for kids to return if they had to go home because someone in their classroom tested positive,” the governor said.

She said parents should be focused on getting their kids vaccinated now that eligibility is open to anyone 5 or older.

Asked specifically about the potential for school closures or shutdowns, Ms. Hochul said that would be an overreaction since the vaccine is readily available.

“I will not overreact and send this economy spiraling out of control once again because it’s taken so long to get back where we are,” she said.

Another boost in the pandemic fight from the federal level, Ms. Hochul said, is reimbursement for over-the-counter Covid tests. She said the White House is working to require insurance companies to cover the cost of an over-the-counter test to make those more readily available.