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Hochul on omicron variant: 'It's coming'

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New York City has, by far, the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the state. But even that achievement could soon be challenged by the omicron variant — first seen earlier this month in Botswana, and quickly spreading through Africa — and Gov. Kathy Hochul says she wants to make sure New York is ready.

Hochul signed an executive order Friday allowing the state health department to limit non-essential, non-urgent procedures for hospitals with limited capacities ahead of an anticipated winter surge. That limited capacity is being defined as hospitals with vacancy of less than 10 percent.

The order takes effect Dec. 3, and will continue until at least Jan. 15 when risk can be re-assessed through new COVID-19 data. 

"We've taken extraordinary action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and combat this pandemic," Hochul said, in a release. "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."

While there is some concern that the omicron variant could exhibit some resistance to the vaccine, Hochul is pushing harder for the small minority of New York residents who have yet to be inoculated to finally do so, and for others who did get their shot months ago to seek out a booster.

Unlike many states with languishing vaccination rates, New York has remained quite solid. According to numbers provided to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of adults in New York with at least one dose has now crossed the 90 percent threshold. For those with completed vaccination series, it's 81 percent, according to numbers provided Saturday by Hochul's office.

That includes nearly 59,000 doses administered in the last 24 hours, and more than a half-million in the past week. 

Still, hospitalizations are on the rise with upticks in both intensive care unit beds being occupied and those requiring intubation. In the last 24 hours, however, discharges outpaced new admissions by 3-to-1 in New York.

Hochul's office doesn't break down where hospitalizations are growing, but the largest continuing surge in the state is taking place in Western New York — including the governor's Buffalo-area home — where more than 70 cases are being reported for every 100,000 people over a seven-day period. Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes regions are not that far behind, with more than 60 cases per 100,000.

New York City, by contrast, has between 16 and 17 cases per 100,000, boasting a positive test result rate of less than 2 percent, compared to around 10 percent in Western New York. The Bronx has maintained a positive test rate of about 1.6 percent, similar to Brooklyn. Manhattan is at about 1.3 percent, while Queens is just over 2 percent, and Staten Island is flirting with 3 percent.

All of these cases are delta variant cases, according to state officials, which had barely made a foothold in New York as of last April. Since then, it has completely displaced a half-dozen or so other variants as well as the original coronavirus, making up at least 95 percent of reported cases since the end of July. There are some fears omicron could displace delta if — and when — it finds its way overseas.

President Joe Biden has restricted travel to South Africa and six other countries, except for American citizens looking to return home. 

"We don't know a lot about the variant, except that it is of great concern," Biden told reporters outside of Nantucket Bookworks in Massachusetts on Friday. "It seems to spread rapidly."

Unlike other countries, Biden's travel ban won't take effect until Monday. He also brushed off concerns that creating travel bans might make some countries reluctant to reveal the emergence of new variants.

"I'd say that's ridiculous, because you can't hide the variants," the president said. "It's not like someone could hide the fact that there's a new variant with people getting sick more quickly."

More than 7 million people in New York City have received at least one dose — 85 percent of the city's total population. Nearly 6.4 million are fully vaccinated, representing 76 percent of the total population.

"The vaccine remains one of our greatest weapons in fighting the pandemic," Hochul said. "I encourage every New Yorker to get vaccinated, and get the booster if you're fully vaccinated."

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