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New York, hit hard by the first COVID-19 wave, prepares for omicron variant

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's still not yet clear what the omicron variant will mean once it's detected in the U.S. New York state was hit hard by the first COVID wave, and now officials there are bracing for this latest nerve-wracking chapter of the pandemic. I spoke with NPR's Brian Mann earlier, and I first asked him why New York Governor Kathy Hochul has already declared a state of emergency.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, A, so far, this is all about the delta variant. Even without omicron being here, New York is facing this really dangerous winter surge. It's expected to grow through the holidays. And this comes at a time when, for economic reasons and staffing reasons, the number of available hospital beds has actually declined quite a bit. And there were already about three dozen hospitals statewide where officials say capacity is a concern. So right now, the biggest step Governor Hochul's team is taking as part of that emergency order is helping manage hospital beds, making sure there's enough ICU capacity. One measure already on the table again - Hochul warned hospitals yesterday that nonessential surgeries might be suspended if things keep getting worse.

MARTINEZ: Do health officials in New York think that they'll know quickly if omicron does wind up arriving?

MANN: Yeah, they do. They're pretty confident about this. There is a surveillance system in place to test people who get sick with COVID-19 and then sequence for coronavirus variants. Dr. Dave Chokshi is health commissioner in New York City.

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DAVE CHOKSHI: 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 as well. When it is here, it will be discovered quite rapidly.

MANN: And Chokshi says they're also stepping up monitoring and contact tracing at airports as international travelers do continue to arrive, including from countries where omicron has now been detected.

MARTINEZ: And we're not sure yet whether vaccines will work as effectively on omicron. Is there talk of other public health measures in New York?

MANN: Well, just last week, some local officials across New York state did implement mask mandates for people in all indoor spaces to slow the spread of delta and as a precautionary step ahead of omicron. And Governor Hochul has actually drawn some criticism for refusing to implement a statewide mask mandate. Here she is speaking about that yesterday.

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KATHY HOCHUL: That is an option, but there's also a reality that's out there, and the people who will not get vaccinated are probably the same people who won't wear a mask.

MANN: So no statewide mandate yet. New York City issued an advisory yesterday strongly urging mask wearing indoors. But, again, that's not a mandate.

MARTINEZ: And the thing is, the biggest surge right now in New York isn't in the city. It's happening in upstate New York. Do we know why?

MANN: Well, again, it's all about vaccines, A. Some New York City boroughs have done super well. They've got about 80% of their populations vaccinated. But in many rural counties, vaccination rates are still dangerously low. I spoke with Dr. Howard Fritz about this. He's chief medical officer at Glens Falls Hospital north of Albany. In his area, only about 60% of people are vaccinated. So over the last week, his small hospital has been overwhelmed with new COVID patients.

HOWARD FRITZ: Many of our 51 or 52 in house actually are related. So there are pockets or clusters of the unvaccinated that seem to be fueling this. We do still see some patients who deny that COVID is a real entity. And that, to me, is just baffling beyond words.

MANN: Fritz says his staff is already exhausted by the delta variant. And, A, with so many people still unvaccinated in these areas, now public health officials are waiting to learn whether omicron will bring another winter surge.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Brian Mann talking about the situation in the state of New York. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.