NEW YORK - New York City's top health official predicted Monday it's "a matter of days" before the omicron variant of COVID hits the city - and to prepare, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced child care workers will now be required to get the vaccine by mid-December.
"We definitely believe we will see this variant soon," de Blasio said. "At the same time, it's good that we don't have any cases reported so far … it's giving us time to get information and prepare."
City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi credited the city's COVID-19 surveillance and testing system with being able to detect variants quickly and said that ability would enable health officials to ascertain omicron's arrival "quite rapidly."
"We believe that it will be a matter of days before omicron is detected in the United States and very likely in New York City," he said.
Scientists are still learning about the new variant, which was recently identified in South Africa, but many important facts remain unknown.
Perhaps most importantly, researchers are still trying to pinpoint how transmissible the strain is, the severity of the symptoms it causes and how much protection vaccines provide against it.
The delta variant of COVID-19, which was first identified in the U.S. in March, is now the dominant strain of the disease in the city.
Chokshi said Monday that he expects more will be known about omicron "in the coming weeks."
"We don't have reliable evidence yet about omicron's speed of spread compared to delta, but it does have similar mutations to other transmissible variants, and there are some reports from South Africa indicating potentially rapid spread," he said. "We have even less evidence about whether omicron contributes to more severe, or - as is possible - less severe disease. You may have heard some reports of milder illness in South Africa, but take them with a grain of salt. Rigorous investigations are still underway."
Chokshi noted that preliminary data suggests people who've already been infected with COVID might be more susceptible to the omicron variant, which he said "underscores our strong recommendation to get vaccinated - regardless of whether you've already had COVID-19."
The high anxiety over omicron's arrival was accompanied Monday by announcements that all child care workers would have to receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 20 and that the city is offering stronger encouragement to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
The mandate for people working in child care and early intervention programs would cover more than 100,000 workers. It builds on a prior mandate that city-contracted child care workers be vaccinated.
"In light of all the information we have, the quicker that you get vaccinated, the better off you'll be (and) your family will be," de Blasio said. "This is going to be important for the employees and their own health, obviously, but it's also important for protecting the health of the kids who are in these child care programs."
The latest vaccination mandate has been in the works "for awhile," de Blasio noted, but he added that the omicron strain encouraged him to move on it - and to possibly issue more mandates and restrictions in the future, although he wouldn't specify what those might be.
His announcement Monday notably featured a guest appearance from his soon-to-be successor, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who will be sworn in mayor on Jan. 1.
De Blasio made it a point to reassure New Yorkers that not only has he been in talks with Adams about omicron, but with Gov. Kathy Hochul as well. During the height of the pandemic, de Blasio and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned from office in disgrace amid sexual harassment allegations, often struggled to offer a unified front against the crisis.
"We're seeing a clear message being sent to New Yorkers that the vaccine is our most potent weapon, but our coordination is a close second to that," Adams said. "I want to send a clear message: anyone that believes we're going to play off a different playbook under the next administration of not pursuing vaccines, they need to believe that it's not true. We are going to be on the same playbook. We must get vaccinated."