New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul became the first state leader to declare a state of emergency after the Biden administration closed off travel to the U.S. from eight southern African nations in response to the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant the WHO has labeled “omicron.”
Hochul’s emergency order is aimed at bolstering New York’s hospital capacity and will last at least until Jan. 15, when she is expected to reassess the situation.
Fox News reported that, according to a copy of the order, New York will employ the “surge and flex system” allowing the state Department of Health to order limits on non-essential and non-urgent operations and other care when hospitals have less than 10 percent staffed bed capacity.
The order takes effect Dec. 3, the outlet reported.
The new variant has not been detected in New York state but Hochul said that preparations would need to be made anyway, noting that there are “warning signs” already of a potential spike in coronavirus cases.
“We’ve taken extraordinary action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and combat this pandemic. However, we continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Hochul said in a press release.
“In preparation, I am announcing urgent steps today to expand hospital capacity and help ensure our hospital systems can tackle any challenges posed by the pandemic as we head into the winter months,” she added.
“The vaccine remains one of our greatest weapons in fighting the pandemic, and I encourage every New Yorker to get vaccinated, and get the booster if you’re fully vaccinated.”
Hochul’s order comes after President Biden issued an executive order on Thursday barring travel to the U.S. from South Africa, where the new variant was discovered, and seven other nations in the southernmost portion of the continent.
Biden’s order came only hours after his chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is also head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said the administration did not have enough information to decide if a travel ban was necessary.
Friday morning, Fauci acknowledged the new variant and said that it was raising a “red flag that this might be an issue, we don’t know.”
“Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci said after being asked about a possible travel ban.
“You always put these things on the table, but you don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it,” he added. “That’s the reason why we’re rushing now to get that scientific data to try and make an informed decision about something like that.”
He also said that “you want to find out if in fact [the variant] does evade the vaccines.”
A few hours later, Biden suggested that his decision came after consulting with Fauci.
“This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa,” he noted.
“As a precautionary measure, until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” Biden said.