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Be wise in face of omicron

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine Monday in

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine Monday in Soweto, South Africa, where the new omicron variant spread quickly. Credit: AP/Denis Farrell

Even as families gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving and the possibility of reaching a post-pandemic normal, a new variant of COVID-19 was already making a move to upend those plans. By the time countries, including the United States, began to limit travel from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected, omicron had begun its march across the globe.

Omicron likely has already reached our shores, or will any day. That's not, as President Joe Biden said Monday, reason to panic. But nor can we become complacent.

There's plenty we do not know about omicron. We don't know how severe it is or how quickly it transmits, though initial evidence shows it spread quickly in southern Africa and some reports found that those infected had relatively mild symptoms. It could still be weeks before we know whether omicron is vaccine-resistant.

While we wait, let's not forget that the delta variant continues to be responsible for most new COVID cases.

So, what do we do as the virus swirls? Let's start with some easy steps. If you haven't gotten vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you haven't gotten a booster, and it's been more than six months since you were vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna shots, or two months for Johnson & Johnson, get a booster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday importantly strengthened its recommendation to say everyone 18 and older "should" get the booster shot.

Beyond that, there's a simple additional step to take: Wear a mask when you're indoors or when you're outdoors and in crowds. New York City issued an advisory recommending such mask-wearing. Gov. Kathy Hochul encouraged it, but stopped short of issuing a mandate. Long Island's elected officials should serve as an example, wearing a mask when in public or indoors and encouraging others to do so, which could provide businesses with support if they issue their own requirements.

Hochul is right to take a targeted approach in focusing on areas where COVID-19 is rising at a faster clip and in acknowledging that the state must be able to "turn on a dime." She has to be ready to take significant steps if it's determined that omicron is a serious threat.

The emergence of omicron is a reminder that the U.S. has to provide more vaccines to countries that need them, especially developing nations where poor public health conditions are more conducive to virus mutations. Omicron highlights just how interconnected we are, and why lower vaccination rates elsewhere matter to us.

We all are understandably weary of this pandemic and afraid that a new wave could threaten a return to some level of normality. But thanks to vaccines and medicines, omicron does not bring us back to square one. Variants will arise, and we must adjust.

Until we know whether omicron will scramble our lives again, it's best to be smart and safe.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.