NEW YORK — New York City’s health commissioner issued an advisory to all residents Monday to wear a mask in all indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status, as concerns about the recently discovered omicron variant of the novel coronavirus spread around the world.
Dr. Dave Chokshi said at a news conference that city scientists have not detected the omicron variant yet in the city — but that could change soon.
“We do anticipate detecting omicron in New York in the coming days, based on its global spread,” Chokshi said at the news conference. The city currently conducts genetic sequencing for 15% of all coronavirus specimens tested from city cases of COVID-19, he added, suggesting that the city will discover the variant "quite rapidly" after it arrives.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he has been in close coordination with Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor-elect Eric Adams in preparing for the arrival of omicron.
“Everyone knows there's still a lot of information we need, and that will take days or even a few weeks to come in,” de Blasio said. “But we’re gonna be in a very vigilant state in the meantime, and taking any and all actions as we get facts to support them.”
De Blasio said the new advisory represented the city "doubling down" on similar mask guidance issued in August. The mayor added that he did not want to issue a masking mandate immediately out of concern it would send the message that wearing a mask is more effective than vaccination in preventing COVID-19.
"I never want to give people the impression that wearing a mask is a substitute for vaccination," he said. "If we think a mask mandate is gonna play a crucial role, we’ll move on it quickly."
De Blasio also announced a vaccination mandate for employees of child care programs, including more than 102,000 child care and early intervention program workers. The mandate will go into effect Dec. 20.
De Blasio pointed to the low vaccination rate in city schools as motivation for the mandate.
“We know these employee mandates work, and they help protect kids,” he said.
Speaking with NY1 political anchor Errol Louis on "Inside City Hall" during his weekly "Mondays with the Mayor" appearance later in the evening, de Blasio said the latest vaccine mandate had been destined for child care workers before the emergence of omicron.
"It's something that we've been working on for a while," the mayor said, "Certainly, the concern about the new variant only made us want to solidify it even more."
De Blasio in the interview with NY1 did not rule out the possibility of additional vaccine mandates.
De Blasio also called for a federal vaccination requirement for all travelers coming from abroad, and pointed to city testing efforts to use contact information for international travelers from high-risk countries provided by federal agencies to encourage those travelers to get tested upon arrival. Testing is not required for entry into the city.
Chokshi said that little is known about the omicron variant, with virtually no solid evidence available from scientists about how quickly it transmits between people, how severe a course of disease it causes and whether current vaccines protect against omicron as effectively as earlier variants of the coronavirus.
Chokshi said that, even so, residents should still seek out current vaccines for first, second or booster doses. The most recent week of city data, he said, showed that unvaccinated New Yorkers were seven times more likely than vaccinated residents to be hospitalized for COVID-19.
“It’s natural to feel some anxiety about the variant,” Chokshi said. “But the Marie Curie quote — ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood’ — comes to mind.”