A sign outside the hospital advertises COVID-19 testing on November 19, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
New York City authorities have confirmed five cases of infection with the omicron variant of Covid-19 in the New York metropolitan area, Gov. Katie Hochul said late Thursday, hours after the cases were discovered in Minnesota and Colorado.
One case was found in Suffolk County on Long Island and four in three New York boroughs: two in Queens, one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, she said at a press briefing. Earlier Thursday, Minnesota health authorities confirmed a second case of the omicron Covid virus in the United States in a resident who recently returned from New York.
New York City Health Commissioner David Chokshi said the community has spread across the state, adding that the state is sequencing about 15% of all Covid tests, allowing them to “catch these trends over time.”
“These are not just people who travel to South Africa or other parts of the world where the omicron has already been identified,” he said.
Hochul reassured residents that finding cases of omicron in New York does not mean that she will require the same massive lockdown at the start of the pandemic that closed businesses and left millions of New Yorkers unemployed.
“We are in a much better place when people are informed. No panic, ”she said Thursday night. “This is still a public health crisis, but it doesn’t have to be a crisis that will bring a halt.”
The first confirmed case of a heavily mutated strain in the United States was found in California in a resident who had just returned to San Francisco from South Africa, which first reported the strain to the World Health Organization about a week ago. The Colorado case was also confirmed in a traveler who had just returned from southern Africa.
Cases in California, Minnesota and Colorado have been diagnosed in fully vaccinated people with mild disease. Hochul said the Suffolk County case involved a 67-year-old woman who had received at least one vaccine and who had just returned from South Africa with mild symptoms. The New York case is linked to another suspected traveler, she said, adding that she doesn’t have any details about the Queens and Brooklyn cases yet, but she will share them as soon as they appear.
Health officials in the US and around the world are concerned that omicron is more transmissible and may elude the protection provided by currently available vaccines to some extent. This variant has about 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are related to the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to human cells.
“The molecular profile of the mutations you see [in omicron] may suggest that it may be more transmissive and that it may elude some vaccine defenses, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters Wednesday. “But now we don’t know that.”
On Thursday, the Biden administration laid out a plan to combat the omicron and a possible winter outbreak of the predominant delta variant of the virus. The White House requires all arriving international travelers to be tested for Covid within 24 hours of departure. The administration is extending mask requirements on domestic flights and public transport until March 18. It is also expanding access to free in-home Covid tests.
On Wednesday, WHO said the omicron had been confirmed in at least 23 countries around the world. This variant was first identified in Botswana last month and brought to the attention of WHO by South African health officials.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead, said on Wednesday that hospital admissions in South Africa are on the rise, but more data is needed before drawing conclusions about whether omicron causes more serious illness.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that a California patient who tests positive for omicron has been fully vaccinated, has mild symptoms, and is improving. A person between the ages of 18 and 49 did not receive the booster dose because they did not get through six months after the initial course of vaccination.
Dr. Mark Ghali, California Secretary of Health and Human Services, said the fact that the patient has mild symptoms and is improving underscores the importance of vaccines.
It will take about two weeks to gather enough data to determine what effect omicron mutations have on the effectiveness of current vaccines, according to CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna. They said it would take until early 2022 to develop a shot specifically targeting this option. However, Moderna CEO Stefan Bansel said the company could release higher doses of the booster much faster.