NEW YORK - New York City's health commissioner said Monday he is "strongly recommending" that everyone wear masks in indoor public settings as scientists work to learn more about the newly identified omicron variant of COVID-19. Dr. Dave Chokshi, the commissioner, said he was recommending that all New Yorkers wear masks "at all times when indoors and in a public setting like at your grocery or in a building lobby, offices and retail stores."
"This includes those that are vaccinated and those who've had COVID-19. Higher quality masks like KN95s or KF94s can offer an additional layer of protection," Chokshi said. "And masks are still required for everyone in public transit, health care settings, schools, and congregate settings."
The guidance was in line with the recommendation issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas where the virus is surging.
What Is Omicron?
Much is still not known about the omicron variant, which was identified last week by researchers in South Africa, including whether it is more contagious than other coronavirus variants, or more able to evade the protection of vaccines.
"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," Chokshi said. "Second, severity. 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 since hospitalizations and deaths lag cases."
Cases of the omicron variant have been detected in several countries, including Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, but no cases have yet been detected in the United States.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said that while there have been no cases of the omicron variant reported in New York City, "it is very likely there will be."
Chokshi, who joined de Blasio at a virtual news briefing, said the delta variant of the virus accounts for 98% of the coronavirus samples from New York City that are being sequenced now.
"But remember that the vaccines are proven to be effective against delta in the here and now. And for the most recent week of data, unvaccinated New Yorkers were nearly seven times more likely to be infected than vaccinated residents," Chokshi said. "To summarize, we still have a lot to learn about the omicron variant, but its emergence lends urgency to the importance of the precautions we've all become familiar with, particularly vaccination, masking, and testing."
CDC Recommends Boosters
The CDC is "strengthening its recommendation" for U.S. adults to get a booster shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, especially because of the emergency of the omicron variant, the agency's director said.
"Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant," Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well because strong immunity will likely prevent serious illness."
The CDC wants everyone who is 18 and older to get a booster shot either six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after their initial Johnson & Johnson vaccine.