Leading infectious disease experts urged Long Islanders on Monday to get their COVID-19 booster shots immediately as a defense against the new omicron variant, whose outbreak they said is the most definitive evidence yet that the pandemic is likely to be with us for more years.
Concerns over omicron — first detected in South Africa in early November — also led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday to issue its strongest recommendation to date on boosters, saying all fully vaccinated people over the age of 18 should get the shots when they become eligible.
"The recent emergence of the omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "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."
Previously, the CDC had said people over age 50 and in certain categories "should" get boosted, while others over 18 "may" get boosted. The CDC's timeline for boosters has not changed. The agency said everyone 18 and older should get a booster shot six months after their initial Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna series and two months after their initial J&J vaccine.
As more cases of omicron emerge around the world, Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital, said the variant has signs of being worse than the highly contagious delta variant in some ways.
"It certainly is alarming," Farber said. "It has spread remarkably quickly, replacing the delta variant, which we didn’t previously think was possible. The impossible always becomes the possible with this virus."
He added that COVID-19 isn't disappearing any time soon. "There’s no question it’s going to be around for many years to come. This virus is still evolving, and we have not heard the last of it. That’s the one thing you can bank on," Farber said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday at a news briefing that the new variant has not yet arrived in New York, as far as medical experts know, but that it has been confirmed in neighboring Ontario, Canada. She said the state is gearing up to handle a holiday season surge in COVID-19, which now likely will be complicated by omicron.
That surge was apparent on Long Island as the number of new daily cases topped 1,000 again in test results Sunday, and the positivity average ticked upward toward 5% — more than doubling in a month.
Hochul said that as of Monday, about 2.4 million New Yorkers had received a booster shot, including 363,432 people on Long Island.
Dr. Betty Diamond, director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, urged people to "get a booster now," adding that any "new vaccines will need some safety testing before they are rolled out, so the new vaccine, if one is needed, will not be here tomorrow."
'Not out of this pandemic by any means'
Dr. Uzma Syed, infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, agreed that people should get their booster as soon as possible — or their first shots, if they are unvaccinated.
"The safest thing to do now is to get the booster instead of waiting because every day that you wait is a chance of you acquiring the virus and potentially getting hospitalized," she said. "You definitely want to get it as quickly as possible before this variant really takes off. It’s more than likely that it’s already here."
She said it isn't surprising that a new variant has emerged, since the virus continues to circulate widely and mutate among those unvaccinated.
Syed said the country and the world have missed the chance to get the pandemic under control because too many people refuse to get vaccinated — or in regions such as Africa, the vaccine is not widely available.
"The disinformation and misinformation campaigns that have been out there" casting doubt about the vaccines "have really hurt us," she said. "It is deadly. It is costing people their lives. We’re kind of going in this vicious cycle where we can't seem to come out of it because of the propagation of the disinformation."
That has led to the emergence of more variants, Syed said. "We are not out of this pandemic by any means. This is not a short-term kind of thing. We’re in this for the long term," she said.
Still, Syed said the country and world are not in the same dire situation as when the pandemic started in March 2020.
"We certainly are not back to square one. We’re not in March 2020. We’re not in February 2020 looking at the globe where we have nothing in our toolbox," she said, adding that we now have vaccines, medications and treatments for the virus.
Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of the infectious disease division at Stony Brook Medicine, pointed out that the delta variant is spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 in the United States.
"As of now, we are still fighting delta. We are not fighting omicron," she said. "It may be in this country already. It may eventually replace delta, but right now what’s in my hospital is predominantly delta."
Fries also agreed people should get their booster.
"All of the vaccines give us a good immune response, which means we make antibodies, but the amount of antibodies in our blood comes down over time," she said. "That’s why we need a booster. With new variants coming out, we need really high antibody titers to fight them successfully."
Some countries immediately banned travelers coming from South Africa, but Farber said in the long term, travel bans won’t be effective.
"These travel bans sometimes work for a very short period of time. But in the long haul, they rarely work," he said. "Our borders are way too porous to keep out viruses. You’re not going to build a wall that is going to keep these viruses out."
The only long-term solution, he said, is getting enough people vaccinated to crush the virus. But the United States has failed to meet that goal, and many countries are even further behind, including those in Africa, Farber said.
Positivity rates continue to climb
The emergence of the omicron variant comes against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 indicators on Long Island, in New York State and around much of the country.
On Sunday, Long Island’s seven-day positivity rate rose to 4.78%, state data showed. It was as low as 2.08% as recently as Oct. 28. The seven-day statewide rate increased to 4.12%.
Nassau and Suffolk counties are now registering hundreds and sometimes even more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily. The region tallied 1,004 new cases on Sunday, with 552 in Suffolk and 452 in Nassau.
On Sunday, 41 people in the state died of causes linked to COVID-19, Hochul said. They included two in Nassau and one in Suffolk.
Hochul said at the news briefing that she expects the indicators, including the number of people hospitalized, to go up more because of Thanksgiving gatherings.
"Mark my words: We are going to see a surge in the next couple of days," she said.
What to know
The CDC strengthened its recommendations for COVID-19 booster shots on Monday, saying all people fully vaccinated over the age of 18 should get a booster when they become eligible.
Health experts on Long Island said the best way to protect yourself against the new omicron variant and all other COVID-19 variants is to get vaccinated or boosted immediately.
Concern that the omicron variant could be highly contagious and cause more severe illness is proof the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of ending in the near future.