New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency in response to a winter coronavirus spike and the threat of the newly detected omicron variant on Friday, making her state one of the first in the country to impose measures against the mutation that was recently sequenced in southern Africa.

As part of the emergency, the state’s Health Department will be allowed to protect hospital capacity by limiting nonessential and non-urgent care until at least Jan. 15. Hospitals with less than 10% staffed bed capacity, or those designated by the state, will be authorized to screen patients and restrict admissions to keep beds open for the most urgent cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that omicron had not yet been detected in the United States, though Hochul said of the variant: “it’s coming.”

She also urged New Yorkers to mask up in indoor public venues, get tested when appropriate and to stay home when ill. She also reminded residents to get vaccinated or boosted against the coronavirus.

New York has fully vaccinated slightly over two thirds of its residents, Washington Post figures show. Close to 80% of the state’s 20 million residents have received at least one dose, according to the governor’s office. But Hochul noted in her executive order that the virus is transmitting at rates not seen since April 2020, when New York was at the center of the global pandemic.

“This is a concerning development that we must watch extremely closely, and be prepared to address as a city, state and country,” said New York City mayor-elect Eric Adams of omicron in a statement. “Our health officials must … have response options available should it prove to be significantly more virulent.”

Hochul’s order came on the same day that the Biden administration said it would restrict flights from southern Africa.

The nation’s top infectious-disease experts, including Anthony Fauci, urged caution even as they acknowledged that there were many unknowns about omicron, which the World Health Organization designated a variant of concern on Friday. U.S. health officials are in touch with their South African counterparts to learn more about the emerging variant, Fauci said.

“We want to find out scientist to scientist what exactly is going on,” Fauci said in an appearance on CNN’s “New Day.” “You want to find out if in fact it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing.”

Despite the CDC’s announcement that omicron had not been detected in the United States, Fauci didn’t rule out the possibility that the variant had already arrived in the nation. “Of course, anything is possible,” he said.

Omicron has already been detected in Hong Kong, Belgium, and Israel. Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told The Washington Post that omicron was the most concerning variant scientists had seen since delta. “It’s going to take a really high bar for something to take over for delta, and we don’t know whether this is going to do it.”

U.S. health officials have already been on alert due to the rising number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths sweeping through the country in recent weeks, triggered by the arrival of winter – a time when more people gather indoors. They also fear a surge in coronavirus cases during the holiday season as more people travel.

Virus Outbreak Britain

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference in London on Saturday after cases of the new COVID-19 variant were confirmed in the UK. Hollie Adams/Pool via AP

Britain tightens COVID rules as world on alert over omicron

LONDON – The U.K. tightened up rules Saturday on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases of the new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Amid fears that the recently identified new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped. Many countries have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa in the four days since the omicron variant was first identified in South Africa.

In an attempt to slow the spread, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures” after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.

“Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses,” he told a news conference.

Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in England will be asked to take a a mandatory PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day after their arrival and must self isolate until they provide a negative test. And if someone tests positive for the omicron variant, then he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status – currently close contacts are exempt from quarantine rules if they are fully-vaccinated.

He also said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required and said the independent group of scientists that advises the British government on the rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been asked to accelerate the vaccination program, potentially by expanding the numbers eligible for a booster jab or allowing older children to get a second dose of vaccine.

“From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign,” he said.

One of the two new cases was found in the southeastern English town of Brentwood, while the other is in the central city of Nottingham. The two cases are linked and involve travel from southern Africa. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating alongside their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.

The British government also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – onto the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissability of the new variant – against the advice of the World Health Organization.

Despite the banning of flights, there are mounting concerns that the variant has already been widely seeded around the world. In addition to the U.K, cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong. Germany also said it suspected a positive case and Dutch authorities were testing whether 61 people who arrived on two flights from South Africa with COVID-19 have the omicron variant

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